Selik slouched along at the back of the party with Boret and the other archers. "Stupid crusader. Why is he even here? We don't need him. Our god has returned and reunited us with the rest of the clan."
Boret grunted. "Dolok Darkfur is a power, no doubt, and without his leadership, we'd still be hiding in the forest. Even so... Ramnos has more practical demon-fighting experience than the rest of us put together. You'll be glad we have his sword on our side when we storm that keep."
Their god—a massive, bear-like creature whose bright feathers and intelligent eyes made it impossible to mistake him for an ordinary animal—led the group, flanked by that irritating crusader and the clan's god-caller, Nelket.
Selik spat. "The other crusaders left Sarkoris when the Worldwound closed. I don't trust him. Why is he still here? Shouldn't he be riding to the soft southern lands with the rest of his people?"
Boret snorted. "The crusaders only turned south because the Whispering Tyrant stirs. Things aren't so soft there."
"By the Stag Mother's antlers, boy, go ask him yourself if you want to know his reasons! The crusader doesn't confide in me."
Selik glared toward the front of the group, his eyes widening when the crusader stopped walking until Selik reached him, then fell into step beside him. "I could not help but overhear your question." His accent was atrocious. "I remain because I took an oath to cleanse your ancestral lands of the Abyssal taint. Some think because the land no longer bleeds demons, our work is done, but I disagree." He paused. "Also, I am very good at killing demons."
Ramnos laughed, a sound that irritated Selik to his marrow. "I prefer to think of it as clear-eyed self-regard. I know you are angry, Selik. I don't blame you. Your people have suffered as much as anyone. But I wish your anger wouldn't settle on me. Not all outsiders are invaders. I've developed great affection for your people."
"You mean for my aunt."
"Starting with your aunt, let us say," Ramnos agreed.
"You'll never be part of the Farheaven Clan," Selik muttered. There were precious few of his people left, but Selik bristled at the idea of outsiders traveling with them, or, gods forbid, marrying in.
"Perhaps not. But—"
"We're here," the god-caller said, her voice somehow seeming to whisper in Selik's ear. He stepped away from Ramnos, joining the others on a low rise that looked down on the grim expanse of Carlhon Keep, once home to men and women, now a stronghold of demons, with black clouds swirling unnaturally above its towers and walls.
Selik had grown up in the forests and fields with members of his clan and had spent barely any time under roofs of wood and stone. Carlhon Keep was vast beyond his imaginings. Could his people really live there, if they removed the demonic infestation? "The walls are glowing," Selik whispered.
"Demonic runes." Ramnos sighed. "Those walls may need to come down entirely. The taint runs deep into the stone. The lightning worries me more, though." Sick green flashes lit the dark clouds.
Dolok Darkfur rose, towering on his hind legs, and Selik could not deny the stirrings of awe within him. With their god at their head, how could they fail? "I fear no lightning," Darkfur said, his voice all rumble and strength.
"The rest of us must." Ramnos pointed with his sword to tiny specks moving among the dark clouds and green flashes of electricity. "Those are wrath demons. Vile things. They do a dance—"
"They dance?" Selik scoffed. He made a mocking little pirouette.
"Their dance brings ruin," Ramnos said. "Few who witness it survive. The demons dance not for pleasure, but as a ritual, to call down evil upon their enemies. That lightning... I fear the fiends know we are coming, and have begun to dance our deaths."
"They can't dance if someone bites their legs off," Darkfur growled, and then rushed forward on all fours toward the keep, Nelket and the clan's warriors hurrying after him, swords and hammers drawn.
Ramnos watched them run. "It's a good thing we discussed the plan in advance. Ready your bow, Selik."
The crusader pointed again. The specks in the air were getting bigger, and a few swooped toward them. Selik gasped, fumbled with his bow, and nocked one of the blessed arrows. He was one of the best archers in the clan, famed for his ability to shoot birds on the wing, but the things coming for them weren't birds—they were a grotesque cross between men and vultures, trailing feathers and dust.
"Better if they do not come close," Ramnos said. "They spew a poisonous cloud."
Selik took a breath, sighted, and loosed. The arrow sailed true and caught the approaching demon in its right wing just as it dove toward Darkfur. The demon spun, its other wing clipping the ground, and went down in a sprawl of feathers. The god paused briefly over it to deliver a killing blow, and then loped on. "I got it!" Selik crowed. Other demons fell to the holy arrows loosed by Boret and the other archers, and the rest of the demons in the air retreated back toward the keep.
"They were focused on your god, and didn't consider the rest of you threats before," Ramnos said. "Now, they do. Come on!" He rushed forward, and Selik followed, blood singing with something like the thrill of the hunt, but even more potent.
The archers stopped within bowshot of the walls and loosed arrows at the twisted figures on the battlements, protecting the warriors in the vanguard. To Selik's annoyance, the crusader stayed by his side, acting as a spotter and calling out targets—he seemed to know which demons were the equivalent of officers, and once Selik had killed a few of those, the lowlier fiends broke and fled.
Darkfur reached the keep's gate and rose up, roaring, to slam against the barrier. The runes on the walls flared and burned brighter. The warriors joined their god, battering the gates with their weapons, but the god was a siege engine in his own right, and soon the dark wood began to splinter and crack.
"Here." The crusader offered Selik a knife—almost big enough to be a small sword—with a blade that reflected more light than it should have beneath those clouded skies. "Your bow will be less use inside."
Selik reached out, scowled, paused, then snatched up the weapon. It felt good in his hand, thrumming with power. "Why are you giving me this? Why are you sticking so close to me at all?"
"It is... possible... I told your aunt I would look out for you," Ramnos said, "while she and the other warriors stay close to your god."
Selik stomped his foot. "I am not a child in need of a nursemaid!"
Ramnos chuckled another infuriating chuckle. "That is fortunate, as I would make a poor nursemaid. I am, however, a capable fighter, and would be honored to stand by your side."
"I don't need your help," Selik said. "I can find glory on my own!"
"I do not doubt it, but she made me swear an oath." He shrugged. "An oath is an oath."
The crusader suddenly shouted and shoved Selik aside as a vulture demon leapt down on them from the battlements. The crusader and the demon went down in a jumble of limbs and feathers, claws and blades, and Selik froze. Shooting arrows at distant shapes was one thing, but now the demon was here, at his feet, stinking and writhing and vile and terrifying. He froze for a long moment, then looked around for help, but the rest of the clan was disappearing into a crack in the gates.
Selik shook himself, raised his new blade, and waited for his moment. When he was sure he wouldn't hit Ramnos by mistake, he struck, plunging his blade into the back of the demon's birdlike head. It screamed, the wound smoking, and Ramnos rolled out from under and struggled to his feet. The crusader plunged his sword through the monster's back, ending its shrieks. He plucked a moldy feather from his hair and rubbed at a long scratch on his cheek, but smiled. "You see? You are the one looking after me."
Selik nodded. "That's right. You're... lucky I was here."
"I never could take care of myself alone. That is why I joined an order of knights in the first place." Ramnos nodded toward the cracked gates. "Shall we teach these demons to dance properly?"
"Dancing is soft," Selik muttered, but he followed Ramnos into the keep as lightning began to lance down from the clouds all around.
The crusader's answering laughter somehow annoyed him less this time.