[SNEAK PEEK] Demons & Battleskirts, Volume 1: Chapter 1

Demons & Battleskirts Volume 1

Chapter 1

The spike rammed through the demon’s chest-plate with a wet crack, its black ichor splattering across her boots, some reaching high enough to eat into the nano-mail covering her legs. Still more of it ate at the rich, black silk of her thigh-length battleskirt and the longer drop of her tabard. It seemed to devour the warriors’ creed embroidered in silver thread down the tabard’s length, with particular relish. 

More of the acidic, black blood sizzled against the thin sheen of her personal shield, the magic weaker now than at the start of the battle, retreating from her arms and legs to concentrate around her torso and head. It would breach the shield soon, but the intricately carved plates of armour covering her chest and shoulders would keep the demon blood at bay. At least until the sun rose, after that… the bright yellow rays of dawn would finish the fight.

At her feet, the demon wrapped two of its three sets of hands around her weapon’s haft, mandibles splayed wide over the sharp points of its lipless mouth. It stared at her with defiance in its venomous green eyes. The muscles under its thick, yellow-black armour bulged as it tried to push the glaive out of its chest, even as it raked her armour-clad legs with its other two hands, the thick tips of its claws adding a horrid screech to the cacophony of the battlefield.

She snarled back, teeth bared, matching its green stare with the obsidian fury of hers, and tightened her grip on the weapon. Under her hands, Ahriman pulsed, the once-golden metal long since tarnished by the shadows rising from her soul, the runes carved into the metal writhing with the dark. Just like the blade on the other end, a dark crescent blazing over the battlefield.

Az pushed the glaive’s spiked end deeper into the demon’s chest and twisted. She relished the thick, soggy crunch as the glaive broke through the creature’s softer, inner shell before it ripped through its innards and punctured its spine.

The demon gurgled once – all six of its hands still uselessly trying to prevent the inevitable – and died.

A yank. Bits of carapace flew through the air, more blood staining her legs, trying to sink through the nano-mail behind her knees, the smooth shine of armour-reinforced boots. Az was already spinning, Ahriman twisting in her hands, an extension not just of her arms and feet but her will, her soul, the essence of her being, the blazing crescent blade as hungry for blood as she.

A head flew. A horn. Hand. An arm. Ichor sprayed in black arcs across the predawn, outlined starker and deeper under the glaring lights of the football field. The carefully tended green lawn turned to mud, shredded by talons and scorched by fireballs. The three-metre-high goals at either end had been little more than toothpicks before the eel-headed Valous demons, the posts shattering as the bus-sized flyers were brought down one-by-one by her sister’s magic. 

A Mammoth demon lay face down in the mud, its trunk-like limbs flung to the winds. One chest-sized hand was still wrapped around a huge energy blaster, the demon’s back a smoking ruin of bone and gore, blown to bits when the generator strapped there exploded. And of the seats…

The once pristine bleachers were broken and bloody, demon blood eating through plastic as readily as metal, monstrous corpses strewn over the white seats like forgotten sweaters.

A final slash, a blood-curdling scream fit to shred her ears.

Az spun, Ahriman a whirl of pain and metal in her hands, the shadows embedded in its haft still ravenous for more. But there were no more demons. The ruined football field was desolate, littered with corpses and the final pained moans of the not-yet-dead. Only the last fleeting shapes of the Horde remained; stragglers melting into darkness, fleeing under the bleachers and the scraggy dusk of the old industrial park beyond, desperate to outrun the coming dawn.

She roared, thwarted anger and bloodlust pouring from her throat, the shadows in her soul spilling out her mouth in a promise of retribution. There would be no escape, no place the horned and taloned host could hide. 

Tellamoth wouldn’t escape her again.

Az gathered herself, the cold power rising through her bones, dark magic coalescing in her hands—

The soft shimmer of bells was all the warning she had.

As quickly as it came, the dark, cold magic retreated within, raising goosebumps over her skin. Az turned as moonbeams coalesced, shoving Ahriman between her and the light as if its thin shadow could protect her from the pale rays barely visible beneath the flickering floodlights.

Della stepped out of moonlight. Tall and proud, her dark mahogany hair a corkscrew cloud about her head. She shone with power. From the delicate tattoos bisecting her eyes and flowing over her cheeks, to the gem-like stone held in the tarnished silver swirl atop her staff, she glowed with the intense azure of rampant magic. The power of the High Priestess shimmered from her pores.

For a moment, before the moonbeams faded, the darkness in Az’s soul screeched. Pain wracked her being, a thousand tiny slivers digging into the fabric of her self, piercing the shadows until all that was left… all that was left was—

‘Byrne.’ Della grabbed Az’s arm, but it was the name of the girl lurking deep in the shadows of Az’s mind, that stabbed. ‘The battle’s over, you have to come.’

The bright-blue magic faded, light retreating from Della’s face and neck like water flowing downhill, disappearing under her fitted chest-plate to the back of her hand, flooding into her staff. The High Priestess’s armour was more filigree than plate, as unlikely to stop a pulse ray as her long, ground-length tabard and spilt skirts were to not get underfoot.

Az ripped herself away, spinning from the High Priestess. Even with Ahriman between them, Della’s magic still burned. Magic may no longer have coursed through the azure lines inked onto every inch of Della’s body, but it lingered. A painful glow that assaulted Az’s eyes, reaching through the thin, black membrane to haul the little girl – Byrne, her other self – from the darkness within.

She wouldn’t let the girl rise. Couldn’t let the girl rise. She had to find Tellamoth, had to end this now.

The High Priestess grabbed her arm again. Long, golden-brown fingers – each one banded with two tarnished silver rings – wrapped around her bicep. Magic still played around Della’s hand, eating through Az’s skin to the shadows swirling in her soul. 

Az pulled the shadows tighter within, sensed the girl – Byrne – scream as the cold-dark left claw marks in her psyche, but she couldn’t let the Priestess see. Not yet. Not when she had just awakened; before she had the strength to confront the blaze of the Priestess’s power.

‘Sword,’ the High Priestess said, using her other name this time, the title that called not to the girl but the fury and bloodlust of the self she was now. Or the small part of herself, the tiny sliver she had pushed through the barrier the girl kept between them. 

The strength of the barrier had surprised her, the determination of such a young, ignorant soul. Of course, the soul was still hers, still Az’s, one of the scattered fragments left after the Wheel ripped the Az of before into tiny little pieces – the shining example of heroism and righteousness flung across the Universe. 

‘Enough,’ the Priestess continued. Her voice echoed with power, resounding through the air with the force of a mighty gong. ‘The Horde is broken and Nova needs you, you have to come.’

‘No.’ The denial broke from Az’s lips, and the sound of her own voice almost shocked her back into the dark, almost allowed the girl to rise. It was deep and guttural and hoarse, tasted like blood on the back of her tongue, ached like the first microns of acidic blood eating through the nano-mail at her knee. 

It shocked Della too. Else why would the High Priestess loosen her grip, the power under her skin dulling for just a second.

A second was all it took, all that was needed for Az to launch herself into the fading dredges of night, Ahriman held tight at her side, the industrial park’s high wire fence and cracked concrete—

Azure light blazed and Az screamed. 

Agony engulfed her, took the air from her lungs, the iron from her knees. Inside, the darkness turned to acid, was a hundred glass-taloned Caroen demons ripping into her soul, and outside… Outside the light forced her down, down, down, past her knees until her face was in the wet dirt, until the musty smell of it was in her nose and still it pushed, sank her deeper. Into the darkness itself, into the bone-chilling cold where there was no sight, no sound, nothing at all. Except the girl.

The girl. The tiny fragment of herself with its desperate, naive desire to live, rose as Az descended. For a heartbeat, as the acid and claws hacked at the threads of her sanity, the Priestess’s brilliant blue light weighing her down, they passed each other. So alike, the same rounded face, the large brown-black eyes, the long nose and pale, yellow-gold skin. The same determination too, turning the soft bow-shaped lips hard and dimpling the point of her chin.

The girl— 

Byrne pushed past Az, imagining her boots in the other’s face as she caught the azure light in her hands and thrust upwards. A sharp snap. A jerk in her middle, and she was Byrne again, her other self – Az – trapped under the thin membrane that divided them.

It was Byrne who pushed herself off the torn ground, who lifted herself out of the mud. The wet, ichor-stained earth plastered to her chest even as it stuck to her cheek. It was Byrne who wrapped both hands around Ahriman’s haft, her touch that banished the shadows clinging to its runes, and levered herself to her feet, shaking and cold but free.

‘Byrne?’ With a long, elegant finger under her chin, Della lifted Byrne’s gaze. Power once again blazed in the lines over Della’s cheeks and from the gem-like circle in the middle of her forehead, and there was lightning in her big dark eyes.

Byrne spared one hand from Ahriman to clasp Della’s.

‘Byrne,’ her best friend said again, the dark wings of her brows rising with hope. ‘Is that you?’

Byrne nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said, her voice strange to her ears with its hoarse croak. She cleared her throat, the muscles sore and the flesh raw from Az’s harsh battlecries. The copper tang of blood mixed with the mud on her tongue as she straightened her shoulders, swallowed, and tried again. ‘It’s me. Take me to Nova.’

Pain crossed Della’s face, weighing at the corners of her full red lips, while sorrow dulled the crack of lightning in her eyes. ‘It’s bad,’ she said, even as she clasped Byrne’s hand tighter and moonbeams gathered around them.

‘I know,’ was all Byrne said as the world disappeared.