In Red Rune Canyon

by Richard Lee Byers

Chapter Four: The Master's Table

As more and more sunlight reached the canyon floor, Dron made a steadily increasing effort to keep to the shade. Sometimes, even though raising his maimed hand made his face twist with pain, he used it to shield his eyes.

"I take it," Kagur said, "that ghouls generally hole up during the day."

Dron grunted.

"Does that mean all your fellows will be resting in the same cave where the demon is holding Eovath?"

The ghoul hesitated, as though pondering whether he dared lie or might gain any benefit from doing so. At length, he said, "No. Slaves not rest where Master rests. Might touch Master's things. Might eat Master's prisoner."

If that was true—and to Kagur's ears, it sounded true—it might be a bit of good fortune. Maybe she could at least make her way to Eovath without fighting any more living corpses.

That was assuming the demon wasn't leading its minions against her at this very moment, but she doubted such was the case. The fiend had taken Eovath first because it deemed a frost giant the greater prize. At the moment, it probably wanted to concentrate on turning him undead, not hunting down the human who remained at liberty. It would assume tonight was time enough for that.

Scowling, Kagur vowed to prove that this time, it was the demon that was underestimating its foe.

As the morning wore on, she and Dron began to encounter the unnatural features that figured in campfire tales of Red Rune Canyon. Patches of the walls had turned the hue of blood or obsidian black. In some places, the discolorations had cracked open, and bubbling crimson sludge oozed forth like pus from infected wounds, stinking of sulfur.

At another spot, the creek took on a rusty hue, and the vague suggestion of anguished faces formed and dissolved in the flow. Glimpsing them made Kagur's skin crawl, yet she felt an urge to go on peering, a sense that if she could only make them out clearly, she'd learn something she urgently needed to know.

But she also realized that fascination was irrational and the result of some malign influence. She jerked her head up and spotted a pallid something moving partway up the left wall.

A ghoul perched on a ledge with an outcropping above it for shade, an upward jut of stone at the edge of the drop providing cover like a parapet. Kagur could only see the top of it, and wouldn't have been able to discern anything at all if it hadn't straightened up to blow the curling ram's horn bugle it was raising to its lips.

She snatched an arrow from her quiver, drew, and loosed all in an instant. There was no time to aim properly. Luck was with her, though, and the shaft still punched into the ghoul's head. The creature lost its grip on the ram's horn and flopped back out of sight. The trumpet fell banging and bouncing down the wall.

Kagur waited a moment to see if the ghoul would reappear. When it didn't, she pivoted and aimed a second arrow at Dron's face. Her guide flinched.

"You said," Kagur gritted, "ghouls hide in their lairs when the sun is up. You didn't say there would still be lookouts posted along the way."

"Not know! New! Watching for you!"

Kagur took a breath and let it out slowly. "Maybe. Anyway, you and I are going to keep an eye out for any more of them. You want to spot them before they spot us. Because—"

"If they give signal, you kill me!" Dron snarled. "Understand!"

As it turned out, they didn't come across another sentry. Maybe the one watcher had been a casual afterthought. Perhaps the demon assumed the tangled layout of the gorges would be enough to keep Kagur wandering lost and confused until nightfall. As it might have, had she not pressed a guide into service.

The sun had passed its zenith when said guide halted and waved his maimed hand at the spot ahead where the gorge they were following forked into two. "Go right. See cave."

"We'll see it together."

"Master say, 'Kill,' I kill. He say, I do—no matter what."

Kagur frowned. She was reluctant to dispense with Dron's assistance. But she also saw the sense in not taking him any farther if the demon could compel him to attack her even against his will. Maimed he might be, but he still had fangs and claws.

And if it was time to do without him, should she kill him? A ghoul was unnatural and the enemy of all that truly lived. Every such creature deserved destruction simply for being what it was, and even had it been otherwise, now that Dron was crippled, it might actually be merciful to grant him a fast and painless death.

But she couldn't. Blacklions dealt honorably, even with the undead. "Go, then." If it turned out he'd led her falsely, it would be easy enough to run him down.

She waited while Dron hobbled a little way back down the defile. Then she took a long breath and laid another arrow on her bow. She crept forward and peered around a slimy black- and red-striped outcropping into the right branch of the fork.

As Dron had promised, a cave mouth opened onto the stones and sand of the canyon floor and the creek flowing down the center. Unfortunately, another ghoul lookout, the female with the dangling amber necklace, squatted just inside the entrance. Squinting, the creature had a hood pulled up to shield its head from the sun, but appeared morose and uncomfortable anyway.

The demon must use the table to help it transform prisoners.

Kagur stepped out into the open, drew her arrow to her ear, and let it fly. At the same time, the ghoul spotted her and opened its fanged mouth to shout.

The hurtling arrow plunged into the ghoul's chest. Its cry silenced before it began, the living corpse flopped backward and lay motionless.

Kagur peered about to see if the creature's demise had gone undetected. Seemingly so. She prowled onward to the opening. There she exchanged her bow for her longsword, then skulked into the cave.

It wasn't entirely dark inside. Not at first, anyway. The daylight coming in the entryway shined for a dozen strides before the passage doglegged, and not far beyond that point, greenish luminescence flickered from an opening in the left wall.

Stalking onward, Kagur found the opening led to a side chamber that evidently contained the demon's treasures—or at least a sparse but exotic collection of possessions. A golden quill scratched letters in red on a parchment that somehow unwound more and more of itself without ever reaching an end or making a great pile of used paper. In a sluggishly moving painting, a bloody man and woman locked in a carnal embrace gnawed off and devoured pieces of one another's flesh. The green light danced from an egg-sized gem wreathed in emerald flame and reflected from an oval looking glass floating in midair.

But there was no sign of Eovath. Kagur would have to venture deeper into the cave to find him.

She took a breath, steeling herself to do so. Then a notion came to her, and she turned back to contemplate the mirror anew.

Like any proper Kellid, she distrusted sorcery even when human beings rather than demons were the casters. And a looking glass that hovered in the air was about as plainly enchanted as any article could be. There was no telling what touching it might do. Yet if the demon tried to use its horrible, debilitating gaze on her again, it might just come in handy.

Gingerly, she took hold of the mirror's golden frame and tugged. It moved it easily. When she tucked it under her arm, it made no effort to drift upward or pull away, acting no different from an ordinary object. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Then Eovath's deep voice bellowed, and metal rattled and clashed.

Kagur nearly succumbed to the urge to race in the direction of the sound. But stealth and caution might still serve her brother better, and so she managed to hold herself to a fast stride rather than a sprint.

The light failed as she stalked deeper, until she was groping her way through utter darkness. But fortunately, that was only for a few steps. Then she rounded a bend, and a trace of new light tinged the murk up ahead.

At its end, the passage widened out into another chamber. As she crept up to peek inside, metal clattered once again.

The light in the chamber shined from a scattering of glowing stones and glinted on an upright gray metal slab and the coils of chain that bound Eovath against it. Projections clasping the sides of his head kept him looking straight forward, and little hooks at the ends of thin, bent arms held his golden eyes wide open. At the top of the apparatus, a leering molded face sneered out above the giant's own.

Eovath writhed and struggled against his bonds, producing more rattling and clashing, and the chains shifted and tightened like living things to hold him in place. The metal face clenched its jaw with effort.

The bat demon watched until even Eovath, for all his enormous strength and endurance, had to leave off straining and catch his breath. Then, its clawed feet clicking on the floor, it advanced on him, probably to try again to change him.

Kagur stepped out into the open. "Stop!" she snapped.

The demon hissed and lurched around. Kagur looked straight into its crimson eyes, as though she'd learned nothing from their previous encounter, and felt the power the Abyssal creature had raised to corrupt Eovath stab at her instead. With a surge of triumph, she jerked the looking glass up in front of her face.

Nothing happened.

She was still struggling to make sense of that fact when clawed hands grabbed the mirror frame and ripped it from her grasp. Manifestly unharmed by what she'd imagined to be a masterful ploy, the demon spun the mirror behind it and released it to float.

"That's mine!" the creature snarled, and lashed out at her with its claws.

Kagur dodged aside and whipped out her longsword. When the demon snatched for her again, she cut at its scaly forearm.

She connected solidly, and her blade should have sliced deep and left the limb dangling maimed and useless. But as she pulled the weapon back, she saw it had only nicked the demon. The fiend laughed at her consternation.

Maybe her father had been mistaken. Maybe there were some things that could hurt her and which she couldn't hurt back—at least, not enough to matter.

No! There had to be a way, and she was going to find it.

But it was difficult even to think in the midst of this combat. The demon was strong and tricky, and pressed her relentlessly. In addition to contending with its claw slashes, she had to remember to avoid its gaze, and to stay alert for the slithering, thickening sensation that meant it was trying to seize hold of her with magic.

Even so, she managed to wound it two more times. But those gashes were nearly as shallow as the first, and they stopped bleeding in a matter of moments.

She retreated, and her back foot fetched up against a wall. The demon lunged, claws raking downward, and she wrenched herself out of the way—but not quite far enough. A sting of pain and a spreading wetness told her that the fiend's talons had cut her across the shoulder blade.

She didn't think the slashes were deep, but couldn't stop fighting to check. She could only come back on guard in the increasingly forlorn hope of finally cutting deep enough for it to do some good.

Or perhaps not. She belatedly realized that not all the noise in the cavern came from her battle with the demon. Still chained to the table, Eovath was throwing himself against his bonds again and again in an effort to break free.

A glance was enough to tell her that his efforts were still unavailing. But maybe she could change that.

She faked a sidestep to the demon's right, then charged forward on its left, the trick carrying her past the fiend's talons. It still slapped her with a beat of its wing, but not hard enough to knock her off her feet. She raised her sword high, leaped into the air, and cut at the face at the top of the restraining rack with all her strength.

The metal visage split, and the glinting gray mouth screamed. The lengths of chain whipped and flailed.

At Kagur's back, the demon gave a screeching hiss, and she spun around to face it once again.

It attacked as savagely as before, nearly rending her twice in as many seconds. Then a huge battleaxe whirled at its flank. As she'd hoped, hurting the chain-thing had enabled Eovath to free himself and recover his weapon, and now he was joining the fight.

The demon dodged, and a blow meant to smash into its torso merely tore a wing instead. Worse, Kagur judged that despite her brother's might, the resulting rip was smaller than it should have been—like the gashes cut by her sword, they somehow weren't enough to truly hurt the demon, and would probably heal in a matter of moments. It might be that even she and Eovath fighting together couldn't dispatch the demon in their usual fashion.

But maybe there was a different way to kill it.

Kagur waited for a moment when Eovath attacked hard and obliged the demon to focus on him. Then she darted to the floating mirror and shattered it with her sword. The bat creature pivoted toward the crash and screeched at the destruction.

"Run to the other chamber!" Kagur shouted. "Break everything!"

Without hesitation, Eovath whirled and dashed out into the tunnel.

Kagur's immediate objective was simply to get everybody moving toward the mouth of the cave, and she expected the demon to chase Eovath in the normal way. Instead, the creature paused for an instant—then vanished.

She had a bad feeling about that. As she sprinted after Eovath, she called out, "Don't break things! Just get out!"

When she passed the entrance to the green-lit treasure room, the demon was inside. It had somehow blinked from its former location to its current one, and now it goggled at her, surprised that she and the giant were racing right on by without even trying to make good on her threat.

Eovath lunged out into the sunlight, and Kagur scrambled out after him. Then, bursting into view as suddenly as it had disappeared previously, the demon was before them, crouched and ready.

Kagur darted around Eovath and cut the demon across the ribs. The giant bellowed and buried his axe in the creature's torso, and the bat thing stumbled backward. Judging by appearances, it had finally suffered real pain and shock from a wound.

"Into the creek!" Kagur gasped.

Charging, using the axe still embedded in its body like a handle, the giant bulled the demon backward. The creature snatched and scrabbled but failed either to deter its foe or detach itself from the weapon before Eovath shoved it down into the water.

"Hold its head under!" Kagur said.

Eovath dropped on top of the demon and wrapped his massive arms around it, forcing its face below the surface. Kagur ran up beside the other two combatants and, despite the risk of accidentally hitting her brother, stabbed the bat creature repeatedly.

She no longer had any expectation that the resulting wounds would kill it. But the punishment might keep it too distracted to use any of its foul magic. And in a simple wrestling match, nothing could beat a frost giant.

One and two at a time, ghouls started peering from their hiding places, from burrows like shallow graves in the sandy ground and shadowy depressions in the canyon walls. They might hate the daylight, but the commotion had roused them even so. Kagur wracked her brain for a strategy that would allow her and Eovath to contend with them and their master at the same time.

But then Eovath wheezed, "I think we got it."

He straightened up, gripped the demon by the neck, and hoisted it high, displaying it to the ghouls. The fiend dangled limply as a rag doll, and its many wounds weren't puckering shut anymore.

"You see?" Eovath croaked to the ghouls. "The demon's dead!"

The ghouls exchanged glances. Then they started retreating back into their holes and dark recesses. Maybe they feared to fight folk formidable enough to kill their maker. Kagur supposed it was even possible they were grateful for their liberation.

In any case, their withdrawal allowed her to take a closer look at Eovath, and she caught her breath to see how many times the demon had clawed him as it struggled to break free. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"I will be." Eovath dumped the demon corpse beside the water. "Thanks to my cunning sister."

"Who shouldn't have insisted on coming here in the first place. I'm sorry. I'll heed my elders and be cautious from here on."

He grinned. "Truly?"

She felt a smile tugging at her own lips. "Well, maybe."

Coming Next Week: Andrew Penn Romine takes us to the deserts of Qadira in "The Fate of Falling Stars"!

Enjoying this story? Check out the further adventures of Kagur and Eovath in Called to Darkness, available now!

Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than thirty novels, including the Pathfinder Tales novel Called to Darkness (also starring Kagur and Eovath) and the first book in R. A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen series. In addition, he's also the co-creator of the critically acclaimed young adult series The Nightmare Club, and the author of a new urban fantasy series beginning with the novel Blind God's Bluff. He's written one previous Pathfinder Tales web fiction story, "Lord of Penance".

Illustration by Ian Llanas.

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