Demon's Bane Prologue

The spring morning was a foggy one, and Senn Morel was not enjoying it. Mist wreathed the trees of the forest as if hanging from their branches alongside the dangling moss. He could hardly see far enough to find any firewood, much less find his way back to the camp. As if it weren’t enough to be left behind while his friends grew into their magic, he was stuck at the age of twelve scavenging for firewood and food with the much younger children.

Squish . . . what was that? Senn looked down to find he had stepped in a pile of dung. Great, just what he needed on a morning like this: cleaning his only shoes of some wild animal’s excrement. At least that task would only last a few minutes, unlike the firewood treks. Those would only end when the clan had exhausted the fallen wood supply, which unfortunately was plentiful around its new camp. They’d been here a moon already, and probably it would take another moon to pick clean the surrounding forest, before the older kids would have to start felling live trees for wood. But, looking on the bright side, maybe traipsing around in the damp forest would scour most of the dung off his shoes by the time he got home.

Off to his left there was a shout. “Aah! Help, I’m stuck!” Senn raced toward the sound, sliding to a stop on slippery leaves at the lip of a small ravine. A creek had apparently run there once, but had found a new route when a cave-in blocked its flow. Little Sephora had slid in, and she could not climb out. The muddy walls were several times his own height; probably Senn couldn’t even get out if he fell in himself.

“Hold on, Sephora. I’ll think of something!” He looked at the surroundings: wet, slippery vines and sodden branches that Sephora’s small, muddy hands could never grip. There was no one else in sight to help him. But there was one possibility—a pine tree by the ravine whose top third had been split off by lightning. The split piece hung point-down among the pine’s remaining branches above the ravine. “Move back, I don’t want you to get hit!” Senn uprooted a small, flexible sapling and climbed up the tree until he was level with its broken top. Using the sapling, he pushed and prodded until the broken piece came free from the boughs holding it up. The spring in the flexed sapling pushed the length of pine outward as it fell, and it crashed into the ravine at an angle. Sephora clapped her hands and then climbed up the sticky pine branches, emerging from the ravine sap-covered but unhurt.

“Thank you Senn! You saved me!” She gave him a big hug, pressing her tear-streaked face into his chest. He hadn’t exactly saved her—he certainly could have run back and brought an Adept to hoist her out—but it was satisfying to have managed it by himself.

Just then, he heard the horn. It called loud and long, then sounded long again. The signal for an attack! What bad luck: it had only been a bit over a moon since the last one, and the consequent move of their camp. At least that last time only a single demon had attacked, and no one had been killed. Maybe they would be lucky again. Senn took Sephora’s hand and they ran back to camp, trying to keep quiet to avoid being noticed by a demon. The horn sounded again, three short calls, which meant they’d received a magical warning—three demons were coming. That was bad . . . the most he’d seen at once was two, and that was no lucky day.

The fledgling camp was just starting to look like home: a cluster of cozy huts in a large clearing surrounded by tall, ancient trees. As Senn approached, a momentary burst of flame lit up the space between the trees, burning off the mist. His mother’s spell, most likely; she was Magus-level and the only one strong enough for that. The warmth continued as she reduced the heat to a mist-cutting bake. He could see all the way across the camp now, and more importantly, so could those who would be fighting off the demons. He ran toward the small hut he shared with his mother.

Lieh Morel stood outside to direct the clansmen. She was a tall, imposing woman, and her strong voice echoed loudly across the clearing. “Drop your packs and valuables in my hut. Then pair up as drilled, spellcasters with your strongmen. I want at least four pairs by each trail coming in. We have three demons coming, no telling from where. At least I got the warning in advance this time.” She saw Senn run up. “Thank the stars you made it. I hope all the youngsters will return before the demons arrive. Get on the platform up in that tree and take two or three of these little ones with you.” Right . . . another drawback of being a kid was that you couldn’t get near the action! At least up on the platform, Senn and a lucky few would have a good view of the fighting down below. He grabbed Sephora and a couple of the other wood scavengers who had filtered in from the forest, and hurried them up the ladder to the narrow platform in the crook of the tree.

Below, the adults had begun to organize quickly, guarding the four trails coming into camp. Among them were most of the clan’s strongest spellcasters, Minor Adepts. Unfortunately, there were no Major Adepts in the camp—and only Senn’s mother was at the Magus level, the most powerful among spellcasters. Alongside the Adepts, weapons in hand, were the camp’s fighters, men and women with little magical ability but strong physical skills. As for the rest, some herded children into tents or up into the trees. Several other clansmen found trees to hide behind and checked their weapons, making ready in case some of the attackers fought through to the center of camp. Most of these were Medi, with so little magic as to be almost useless in a battle.

Two of the archers climbed into tree stands and readied their bows. They looked like Beagan and Elam, who were only a few years older than Senn. His mother stood next to their hut at the base of the tree in which he was hiding. She would protect the valuables of the whole camp: some imbued items, books, and other irreplaceable treasures from the time before the demons. Wildon Herst, the old magic tutor, headed over to join her. As a Sabi his magic wasn’t fighting strength anymore, but he’d been a Major Adept once upon a time and could put up a decent shield in a pinch.

Up on the platform, Senn hid and waited. After some time his knees ached from crouching behind the tree trunk. Then a globe of light appeared between the north and west trails that led into the camp. The glowing ball flew in toward one of the outlying huts and blasted the side of it, causing the whole structure to burst immediately into flame. The green branches comprising the hut gave off a dingy smoke as they burned, creating a low cloud over that corner of the clearing. Several fighters from the nearby trailheads shouted and ran toward the source of the energy ball. As they closed in, a strange woman stepped forward out of the haze of fog and smoke, hands raised. That wasn’t good, as the possessed woman could obviously wield some powerful magic, unlike demon-possessed animals that had only claws and teeth at their disposal. As soon as the fighters saw her, they readied their swords and their partners raised walls of solid energy in curving shields around them.

As the battle was joined with the possessed woman, the remaining demon combatants entered the fray. Two massive black wolves bounded out of the misty distance on different tangents toward the nearby trailheads, moving with a speed Senn had never seen in a normal animal. They closed the gap in a few massive bounds, jaws snapping. One wolf barreled into the few clansmen at each trailhead and scattered them like sticks, having moved too fast for them even to set up their solid energy shields.

After that it was difficult for Senn to follow all the action at once. At the center where the demon woman stood, it seemed as if one or two of the shimmering shields held, although several others fell as their creators were distracted or overwhelmed. Arrows streaked toward the woman, but the wolves were too close to clansmen for safe shots. A couple of arrows burned up in midair. Damn, that woman must have had some strong magic! An energy ball flew into one of the charging clansmen and he lit up in flames, sword still swinging and nicking the woman’s leg. She was letting loose energy balls as if it were child’s play. One exploded a nearby tree and sent trunk and limbs flying, along with a haze of shrapnel.

At least one woman from the clan was down on the west trailhead with a wolf tearing at her. The beast had a few burned patches from small energy balls, but none of the Minor Adepts could cast a spell powerful enough to do real damage. Artie Tenko pummeled the wolf with blows from a huge hammer, and Senn recognized Rikk Janus, from a neighboring tent, coming up with a sword to finish it off. Even after he slashed it to the guts, the wolf managed to tear a chunk out of Rikk’s leg. “Aaaahh!” He let out a pained battle cry as his sword came down point-first and speared the wolf in the head, its body finally going limp.

Senn shook his head in despair: in the north there were at least two men down. Jarel Linker’s hounds snapped at the second wolf, although one of the dogs was already crawling away, badly mauled. Jarel’s axe cut into the wolf’s back, blade biting deeply. The demon wolf kept snapping though, until with an axe, a hammer, and one long sword closing in, it turned and started off into the woods, limping badly. Jarel whistled his dogs back, probably not wanting to lose them in a fight he couldn’t see. Several archers loosed arrows which stuck in the wolf’s hide before it disappeared from view.

When Senn looked back to the fight with the woman, it appeared to be almost over. She had two arrows sticking from her chest and one in her remaining arm. A swordsman had chopped the other arm off, at the expense of all the hair on his head, which must have been blown off by the edge of an energy ball. He staggered back behind one of the remaining energy shields as a huge cracking noise split the air. A massive tree split about five strides up, and the top half of it fell toward the demon woman. One of the branches impaled her through the chest and pinned her to the ground. Finally she was still, as the ground beneath her grew red with blood.

“Alright, pack it up and let’s go!” His mother was sweating with exertion: first the spell to burn off the mist, which was a massive one; then, splitting that tree. She was the only spellcaster left standing who could have done it. Yet she still had the energy to give orders, always thinking about the safety of the clan. That always came first, sometimes even ahead of keeping her own son safe. Why did she have to ignore him half the time? Well, Senn had learned to look out for himself, anyway.

Climbing down from the tree was difficult, since every muscle was twitching nervously after the last few tense minutes. Back on the ground, Senn looked toward the hut where his pack was prepared and ready to go, as it was every morning. They would be gone within the hour. Two possessed had been killed, and their demon spirits were probably reassociating already. It was quite a shock for them to be ripped from a dying possessed body, but eventually the spirits would recover and would have to find other hosts quickly. No one in the clan wanted to be around when that happened. Plus there was the other wolf. Who knew if it would die, or tear out the arrows and come back for more? Probably it would take some days for the wolf to heal even if it lived, which would provide enough time for the clan to escape and cover their tracks with magic.

Another fine camp made useless. Senn faced more moons of scaveng­ing for wood in a new place while he waited for his magic. From the looks of it, several of their clan were dead, gone to the spirit world. What was the point, to live a life like this? Something had to change. Maybe the next time, in the next attack, it would be different. Maybe Senn would have his own magic by then.

The kids he’d taken to the tree platform finally clambered down and looked up at him. One cried, “My Daddy’s on the ground over there!” Another piped up, “What’s that smell Senn, did you have an accident?” He looked down at his dung-caked shoes and frowned. Had that really just happened this morning? The incident with Sephora already felt like part of the distant past.