Carrow landed so hard atop a pile of old skeletons that her breath was knocked from her lungs and the porous bones were pulverized beneath her.
She lay for precious seconds, enduring that panicky feeling of suffocation. Waiting...
Once her lungs reset, she sucked in a breath, then immediately began coughing. Though the wind gusted, the air was acrid.
Hauling herself to her feet, she kicked a couple of femurs out of her way and peered around. So this is hell.
All around the matching circle of boulders lay a wasteland such as she'd never imagined. Above her spanned a brown sky, swirling with dust and fumes. Behind her, a rocky desert stretched to the horizon. Glowing stones that seemed to have cores of lava dotted the land.
To her right and left, deep chasms crisscrossed the land like scars, wafting plumes of sulfurous smoke. Before her stood what resembled a forest, but the trees were petrified, their color matching that of the scorched bones scattered all over the ground. Nothing green grew here. Everything was just a gradation of brown, dirty white, or ash.
Miles and miles in the distance, far past the forest, was a single immense mountain with three distinct peaks.
His mountain. Her destination.
Unfortunately, every inch of this place sounded inhabited. In the desert, creatures resembling giant centipedes dipped and tunneled, shifting dunes in a perilous instant.
On either side, the chasms teemed with unseen scrabbling creatures. And even over the wind, she could hear that the forest beyond was crawling with life - not a good thing on a hell plane.
So how was she supposed to get through the creatures to reach the mountain?
Although Fegley's words gave her pause - he'll cut off your head and mount it on a pike - she had no choice but to seek out Slaine. Finding him might take her the entire six days.
From those nearby gorges, shadowy figures began to crawl up. Ghouls?
Not them! They were like zombies, mindless walking pathogens bent on increasing their numbers. Contagious through their bites and scratches, the ghouls needed to infect others.
Surroundings? Sand centipede monsters behind her; creepy, inhabited woods ahead; ghouls flanking her.
When they began skulking closer, she had no choice but to hasten straight for the murky forest, glancing over her shoulder as she ran.
While the ghouls were resilient, able to lope along after prey for dozens of miles at the same pace, Carrow's own strength and endurance were better than a human's, but not like a Valkyrie's or a Fury's. So how to lose them ... ?
Just as the thought arose, they began slowing. In fact, once she'd breached the forest, the ghouls halted. Past the line of trees, she turned back. They were prowling at the very edge, wary. Something within had them spooked.
But sooner or later, they'd come for her. Deciding that nothing could be worse than the troop of zombies on her heels, she plunged ahead.
Picking her way over rocks and stone tree trunks, she increased her pace when she could. Her lungs burned, her muscles screaming....
Right when she'd begun to suspect she'd gained a safe distance, she spied more shapes moving amid the trees. A new threat. Numerous eyes glowed back at her from the shadows, beings surrounding her. They were sentient males - she could perceive their emotions.
And the predominant one was lust.
When they closed in, forcing her to stop, she saw there were at least a dozen of them in various shapes and sizes. They were all humanlike, but each had horns and upper and lower sets of fangs. Which meantdemons.
She turned in place, drawing a harried breath to speak, wondering if they'd understand English. She knew natives likely wouldn't.
But before she could say a word, the smallest one brandished a spear in her direction. He blinked his eyes so rapidly, Carrow dimly wondered if the world looked like an old-timey film to him. "Is she one of the mortals, Asmodel?" he asked in English. Non-natives. They were probably exiled criminals.
Like the others, he was dressed in tattered clothes, indicating they'd been here for a while.
The largest one, this Asmodel, said, "Smells like an immortal to me." With the back of his hand, he swiped a line of ropy drool from his mouth. "First female I've seen in the wastelands. Ever."
No females were here? So these were hard-up exiled criminals? Beauty. Putting on a bold front, she said, "I am an immortal, a powerful member of the House of Witches." But she was tottering on her feet, sooty and bedraggled. Scarcely looking like a high-powered witch.
A demon with green skin asked, "Then why have you not smote us?"
Even with her tor"ue deactivated, right now she was ano-powered witch. Need some happiness here, guys. "An excellent idea, demon." Brazen it out, Carrow. "Though if you allow me to pass, I might consider sparing your lives. Otherwise, I'm debating whether to turn your viscera into nests of vipers or your bones to sand."
Unimpressed, they paid her no heed, arguing among themselves. The gang's intention with her was clear, even before the small one uttered, "I go first."
"The hell you will, Sneethy," Asmodel said.
Carrow shuddered. She had no way to defend herself, and she was surrounded with no place to run. Brazen! Raising her palms threateningly, she said, "Then you've left me no choice. Surrender now, or - "
Sneethy called her bluff, merrily yanking free her backpack, scraping her shoulders.
"Hey!" When he dug into it, rifling through her things, she snapped, "Go Yoda someone else's supplies, asshole."
He ignored her, distributing her PowerBars with glee. Those were scarfed down before he'd even held up her canteen with a "whoop!"
But his excitement faded as he sniffed the air. "It comes." His low voice conveyed fear - and awe. "Though we haven't crossed into its territory."
So what was it?
With darting eyes, the green demon said, "We go now!"
Asmodel stalked closer to Carrow. "I go nowhere without this female." More drool dripped from his lips. "She would be worth her weight in water! Even used."
"You'd risk facing it?" Sneethy said.
Apparently so, because Asmodel seized her arm. She kicked down on his instep, but it didn't even faze him. As she fought, he dragged her along deeper into the woods.
"Stop struggling!" he ordered. "You'll be our concubine - or the beast's dinner. And it nears even now."
What in the hell had spooked a gang of demons like this? As they all plunged into a copse of petrified saplings, the fleeter ones darted ahead, the slower ones lagging. The young trees had grown so close, it was like wending through a smoke-laced cornfield. Good cover.
Yet the demons grew more uneasy, drawing their weapons and crouching low. Asmodel pulled a wooden club from his belt. Sneethy sniffed the air again and whimpered, raising his spear.
The green demon drew a hunting knife and muttered, "It stalks us." A demon worried about being stalked?
When she heard a gurgling yell behind them, her eyes went wide. She ceased any resistance, fleeing with them when the gang began running. At intervals, she glanced back, as unnerved as they were.
Then, directly on the path ahead, they came across one of the faster demons - beheaded so recently his body was still kneeling.
As the corpse collapsed, Asmodel sneered, "No, the beast plays with us."
Another demon's scream warbled from behind them. They'd barely gone a dozen steps in the other direction when something that sounded like a boomerang sailed through the air overhead. Blood rained down from it.
The beast had flung a severed leg like a Frisbee to land in front of them.
Beside the mangled leg lay a pair of demons, one body toppled over the other. And their heads looked to have been severed - not with a sword but with claws.
"A single blow took down two." Asmodel swallowed loudly as he jerked her around in a circle, scanning for an escape.
Something had beheaded a pair of immortals with one strike? Then gone to slash off the leg of another? "No, there's got to be more than one," she said. Beings were dying in all directions, screams like a chorus.
"One," Asmodel snapped. "It!"
Sounds of carnage echoed through the trees, the cracking of bones and the unmistakable tearing of flesh. She began shaking too hard to run, stumbling twice in rapid succession.
Asmodel promptly abandoned her, taking his chances, sprinting through the saplings.
The few remaining demons followed suit, scattering in different directions. She trailed after Asmodel, the biggest one, while all around her the others screamed.
Then she slowed, s"uinting in disbelief through the smoke. Ahead, something like a shade seized Asmodel with a staggering speed. Asmodel looked as if he were being lifted by an unseen force. Whatever it was ruptured the demon's body in midair - limbs separated, blood spraying over dust.
He'd never had time to scream.
The shadow vanished. Silence fell. Only the sound of the wind could be heard. Had they all been taken out? Or were they hiding?
What was this thing?
She twisted around, her eyes darting. When she reeled back from a nearby sound, she tripped over a legless, beheaded torso, tumbling beside a pool of gore and entrails.
Sneethy. She recognized the spear still clenched in his hands.
Choking back bile, she crawled from the leavings into a patch of petrified brush.
Her first impulse? Ball up there and hide. What use was fleeing? Death awaited in any direction.
Then she grew ashamed. Though young, Carrow was an inducted mercenary of the Wiccae and a leader among their vaunted warrior class. She'd face this beast fearlessly - even to the end.
"Show yourself, coward!" At once, trees began to topple in a line coming straight for her. A monster on its way. Before, it'd been soundless. Now it crashed toward her.
It was playing with her as well.
Carrow would be damned if she was going to sit here, helpless, like some offering to King Kong. For the first time in her life, she had someone depending on her. She would fight.
And if she couldn't match its strength, she'd use other talents. She could be cunning ... deceptive.
She pried Sneethy's spear from his gnarled fingers. You're about to see what would happen if Fay Wray were a witch!
Just as she dragged the weapon into the brush behind her, the attacker plowed into the clearing.
Carrow craned her head up. And up ... She lost her breath.
The being's body was nearly seven feet tall and splashed with blood. Large horns curved back from above his ears. His lips were parted, exposing upper and lower fangs. Another demon.
And, gods, this one was big. His broad chest and brawny arms were covered in a mesh chainmail shirt, his muscles rippling with strength under the metal. He was clad in leather pants, and they too were spattered in crimson. His long hair was tangled around those horns and hung over his dirty face. A sparse beard covered his cheeks.
Surely, this couldn't be ... him. Her target. Nothing about his appearance indicated vampirism. Please don't let it be him.
When their eyes met, she gasped. His irises were a light blue, as described in the dossier. Severely disturbed? Violently territorial? Affirmative.
The blue flickered, turning blacker by the second, usually a sign of lust or rage in a demon. Neither boded well for her.
Just as she studied his appearance, his gaze raked over her body, over her hiked-up skirt and bared thighs. At once, his horns straightened and flared back, signaling his attraction to her.
When he raised his face, his eyes narrowed, as if with recognition. He clenched his hands into meaty fists, then opened them, splaying his claw-tipped fingers. Again and again he made fists, then released them, like he missed something he'd long held on to.
His shaft was hardening - impossible to miss that. When he sucked in ragged breaths, grasping at his chest, a ridiculous suspicion arose, but she tamped it down.
This demon looked to be on the razor's edge of lust. For all Carrow knew, he'd been out in this wasteland for centuries without a woman, as hard up as Asmodel.
And if she didn't figure out a way around it, this one was about to be on top of her, his hulking body heaving over her.
"I-I'm asking you not to hurt me," she said, studying his expression. His harsh face evinced nothing, no comprehension of her words. So no English. Trothan native? Check. His only reaction was an ever-growing erection.
Just as she'd begun to suspect he was beyond any communication, he slammed a fist over his chest, then pointed at her, rasping something that sounded like "Ara." His voice was rough, as if it'd been dragged over gravel.
When he stalked closer, she spied a tattoo, a large one that looked like black flames licking up his side - his right side.
Hekate help her, this was Carrow's target, Malkom Slaine. And the Order had been woefully mistaken. There'd be no coaxing him anywhere.
Change of plans. She wasn't going to lead him to the portal. She was going to lug his unconscious body there. After repeatedly stabbing him.
But for her plan to work, she needed him to charge her, to fall upon her. Mentally steeling herself, she motioned for him, crooking a finger.
His eyes briefly widened, but he didn't speed up his approach.
Damn it, Slaine! Charge me!