SABIEN HAD ALWAYS been an observant man, wilful and stubborn as well, so when he stood firm in the main entrance, his shadow cutting a dark narrow slice across the marble floor, Ul wasn’t at all surprised when a few of the roughers that lingered beyond the doors urged him to run.
Come away, you dimwart!
You daft cow, get out of there!
Do you want that scrawny neck of yours snapped?
Get away before that thing eats yer ugly mug.
Their words fell on deaf ears. Sabien remained motionless, squinting with a tilted head as though doing so helped him be more perceptive. Ul glared at his scrutiny, needing to disarm him once and for all; yet, no matter how vile a look Ul cast him, their gazes remained locked in a stand-off. Determined to make him flee, Ul willed vines to grow from the bottom of each leg. The vines slithered over the floor, their red flowers and green leaves melting into woody stems that sharpened into arrowheads.
Sabien glanced nervously at the mess of arrows aimed at him. “Only certain cat demons have blue eyes,” he shouted defiantly. “Tree demons, theirs are usually green, sometimes brown or gold, never blue. Yours are the right shape and the right size, but the wrong colour. Maybe you’re a Mystic, maybe you’re not. I don’t know what you are, but I knew another of your kind. He had green eyes. He’d make a more convincing tree demon.”
Ul shuddered. I am a monster. I am.
Insisting that notion to be true simply wasn’t reassuring enough. Remembering to channel power through the matter array, Ul harvested elements from the floor and the walls, from the broken mural, the air, and nearby tapestries. Elements shot across the marble floor, invisible until it struck the bark flesh and flared.
Leg muscles swelled and lengthened, followed by the stomach, chest, and arms. Bit by bit, Ul grew not only in girth but height as well. And bit by bit Sabien straightened his head, eyes widening. Perhaps now he understood that Ul was neither a demon nor a Mystic pretending to be one.
Sabien lingered a moment longer and finally, succumbing to fear, fled Fehran’s Hall.
Ul waited for the roughers to return or bring with them a soldier or two to investigate. When no one came, Ul climbed over the indiscernible mess of fractured images heaped on the ground in the alley behind Fehran’s Hall.
The alley was empty. On the opposite side was an ancient ruin—the remnants of what had been another hall. Jagged walls stood higher in some places than others and extended as far as Northgate. To the right, a brick wall with stairs zigzagged up to the balustrade above where Clothiers began to gather and lean against the railing, peering down to determine what had befallen Fehran’s Hall. At the sight of a tree demon, they recoiled.
Yes, that’s better.
Hoping the Clothiers would simply run away, Ul swaggered toward the hill. Instead, more gathered to gasp and shriek and occasionally snicker. Ul stopped to listen to the hive of heightened anxiety and in the midst of their buzz, a tittering evolved into a strange annoying giggle.
Who dare laughs at a demon?!
Ul roared, a deafening sound reminiscent of forest trees being ravaged by a windstorm. A chorus of gasps and shrieks followed. Yet, the giggle persisted, erupting into loud, obnoxious laughter.
Roots shot out from Ul’s hands and feet and dug into the brick wall. Fist over fist, Ul climbed up to the balustrade, growing more irritated by the mirthful sound. Shrill screams pierced the air the closer Ul neared the gathering. Several Clothiers ran away, yet the laughter grew louder, more frenzied, full of mockery, and Ul finally spotted a young skinny Clothier, her body convulsing, her face twisted into a strange grin.
“Stop laughing!” Ul commanded.
Demons deserved the awestruck silence that came when someone recognized their superiority, but the Clothier slapped a hand over her mouth as she giggled, eyes wide and welling with tears, her body trembling.
Ul gripped the railing in one hand, while the other reached out and grabbed the Clothier, vines twisting about her thin waist, binding her, lifting her off the ground. She flailed, yet continued to laugh. Even when Ul shook her, the Clothier wouldn’t stop laughing. Tears streamed down her face. Ul shook her again and brought her close. Their noses nearly touched, and still she laughed. Finally, Ul howled. The crack of wood splitting beneath a fork of lightning thundered about them. The Clothier struggled to pry herself free, to run away, and yet she smiled.
She tried not to. Ul could see that now, how her lips quivered as she tried to resist the impulse, how they stretched wide despite her efforts. Her breath heaved and she squirmed to get away. The Clothier was indeed frightened after all. Satisfied, Ul set her back down on the balustrade, where she collapsed on the ground and curled up, wracked by laughter that finally gave way to a fit of sobbing.
That’s more like it!
Ul released the balustrade and climbed down the wall. Some of the bricks and stones dislodged underfoot and tumbled to the ground, evidence of Ul’s deeper destructive tendencies. Inspired by the debris, Ul landed on the ground and slammed both fists into the retaining wall with the might of a Xiines.
The wall shook. More stones and bricks tumbled free, and the balustrade high above cracked in several places. The gathering fell silent at the low rumbling and backed away from the railing, uncertain about their safety. Below, mice bolted from their tiny holes and skittered down the alley between the ruin and the retaining wall of the hill. Ul dashed after them.
Farther north, the alley became less brick and stonier in structure, the ground strewn with dried pine needles, dead leaves, and twigs. Ul snatched up several fuzzy black mice without any thought and ate them whole. Though they restored some energy, the biological reserve required more to ensure the temporal reserve remained intact, to ensure this life cycle and the others to follow lasted a very long time.
Ul searched for more mice, until the alley dead-ended unexpectedly, the ruin butting against the hill at an odd angle. Given the choice between scaling the hill or running the maze of rooms and corridors of the ruin, Ul sought out the nearest broken archway of a window and climbed through into the ancient hall. The remnants of a room opened onto another, and Ul strolled from room to room, down narrow corridors scattered with debris, down worn steps, and headed toward the far end, that part of the decrepit building closest to Northgate.
Northgate offered the shortest route to an abundance of energy, a jetty of woods that ran along the crest of a steppe of land and merged with Woedshor Forest, home to all kinds of living beings. A home indeed, as Sabien had suggested, but Ul was in no rush. Ul was a demon—a monster—and there were others who might benefit from a good scare. They were nearby. Ul felt them.
The march of feet vibrated through the well-packed ground. One. Two. Three. Four. Commands boomed throughout the ruins and then they were inside, swiftly infiltrating the roofless hull of the building, skulking behind half-walls and spying through broken archways.
The moss along Ul’s shoulders stood on end.
Soldiers. At least two of them crept about close by, and Ul backed into a room determined to hide from them. Although the ceiling was gone, portions of the walls and the floor were still tiled with indigo resin and yellow ceramics. Set into the middle of the floor was a large circular stone basin.
Two soldiers, practically boys, darted toward the room and hunkered down behind the half-walls on either side of the doorway. They signalled to one another. The shnnng of swords being released from their sheaths sung a brief haunting melody.
They’re so young. Too young. They’ll be easy to scare.
Ul hammered the rim of the ancient cistern with a fist, breaking off a large chunk of stone, delighting in the surge of fierce strength it took to raise it high into the air. Ul hurled it at the doorway, where it struck the half-walls, shattering the mortar, making the stone tumble free.
The young soldiers held their ground, raised their swords a little higher.
“You’re supposed to run,” Ul mumbled.
But they didn’t, and they spoke to one another and to Ul and to other soldiers nearby.
We’re not easy to spook.
We made a vow to the Magnes to protect him and his castle.
Come quickly, we’ve got the demon trapped.
Feet shuffled and men whispered behind distant walls.
Ul considered turning the slab of cistern into a living creature, something feral and fierce to scare the two young soldiers away, but doing so required both biological and temporal energy. Instead, Ul willed vines to shoot from both hands. The soldiers were quick and skilled for their age. They bolted forward, swung their swords and sheared the vines before they touched them, not realizing Ul’s true intentions.
Along the tile floor, over the rubble that had once been walls, a knot of roots spread out, swelling like a wave. It crept up, around the soldiers’ bodies, and squeezed tight, restricting their muscles, making them grunt and groan, forcing their swords from their grips. No matter how fiercely they writhed, Ul’s force exceeded theirs.
Ever so slightly, Ul lifted the soldiers off the ground and knocked them together. Their heads collided with a thump and they fell limp. The roots receded, easing the unconscious soldiers onto the ground.
Ul stepped over them, returning to the maze of the ancient ruin. Farther along, the corridor ended at what must have been a grand ballroom at one time. Cracked columns of pink marble still stood, yet most of the outer walls were gone. Here and there, slabs of marble jutted from the ground.
On the northern most wall, the wide girth of an old watchtower cast a shadow, and just beyond it, a newer tower cast a second.
A glint of metal. A sword swooshed and nicked Ul’s arm, drawing bright red blood against the bark flesh. The wound stung briefly as Ul jumped back to face the soldier who had been lurking behind a nearby pillar. He had been close enough to do more damage, but he hadn’t. At the sight of the blood, the soldier blinked in confusion.
“Let me guess,” Ul mumbled, immediately healing the minor wound and enduring the after-ache. “Tree demon blood isn’t red. It’s something else, brown or yellow perhaps?”
The soldier raised his sword in response. Across the ballroom, a flurry of movement. Feet scuffed the ground. One by one, from behind every pillar, soldiers emerged. Older ones this time; battle-scarred and no doubt more skilled than the first two. There were a dozen of them at least.
Ul circled backward, scanning them, making note of their positions. Scaring them would require more effort, more creativity, and Ul suddenly wondered if healing that wound was worth the expended energy, energy that would be better used for immobilizing these soldiers.
An arrow zipped through the air. Ul dodged it, noting the rope tied to the shaft. The first soldier let out a loud cry, and the other soldiers raised their swords and advanced, faces contorted in anger and aggression.
Ul shot out long whips of vines from both hands, one after another after another, aimed at the soldier about to strike a side blow, then at another with sword raised high, and at others close by. The vines wrapped about them, binding them tight, the energy in Ul’s biological reserve diminishing with every attack.
Some of the soldiers toppled to the ground immobile. Others remained upright, struggling to get free. The soldier with the sword raised high avoided having his weapon hand bound. He slashed at the vines until he was free again.
Another arrow zipped through the air, a thin rope trailing behind. Then another. This time, the arrow stuck into Ul’s right shoulder, the tip hooking the muscle. At the tug of the rope, Ul groaned from the sharpness of the wound.
None of them intend to kill me. No, they mean to capture me.
Ul recalled the demons locked away in the old prison, what was commonly called The Pit. That place was easy enough to escape, until Ul remembered the spider demon who had been magically bound by Mystics and had been kept there for hundreds of years.
Several soldiers tugged hard on the rope. Ul cried out. Before they caused any more pain, Ul snapped off the shaft.
Another arrow whizzed by. Ul caught this one and threw it back at the archer, then swung a wide backhand that hurtled several of the bound soldiers across the ballroom.
Ul sprouted a mess of roots beneath each foot, and with every step toward the end of the ancient hall, their buoyancy increased. Finally, Ul jumped hard against the ground and launched into the air toward the old watchtower, the springs of vines uncurling.
Halfway up the ruin, roots shot out from feet and hands and clung to the old stones and mortar. Ul crawled up the outside of the tower, approving of how some of the mortar and stones crumbled underfoot and rained down on the soldiers below.
At the top of the tower, Ul sat a moment in silence. Below, more soldiers infiltrated the ancient hall and freed the others before gathering at the base of the old tower. At the command of an officer, the men fastened ropes to grappling hooks.
Why don’t they have the sense to climb the stairwell inside the tower?
A glance at an opening in the floor of the lookout provided the answer. There were no stairs, only darkness.
Ul flinched as an arrow whizzed past an ear, then another. The nearly straight trajectories indicated the missiles came from somewhere high, and Ul looked in the direction of the other watchtower and spied archers crowded together, each desperate to be the one to strike the demon first. In the distance, soldiers guarded the jetty of woods and blocked Northgate and the road to Warfield.
The wound in Ul’s shoulder ached. Healing it seemed a waste of energy that would be better used for defensive manoeuvres or, given the way the archers goaded Ul, perhaps offensive ones. Not wanting to be wounded again, Ul decided to use a bit of energy to thicken the bark flesh.
The air fizzled and crackled. A force slammed into Ul’s chest. Fine chords of energy snaked and coiled around each limb, immobilizing every muscle, prickling every nerve. And the force of the energy caused the tower to grumble and shift.
This… this is magic!
Ul scanned the hillside for the source. Citizens of Sondshor Castle huddled by Mareel’s Gatehouse, and another crowd had gathered along the stairs which descended into the courtyard of Fehran’s Hall. The side of the hill had split in places from where Ul had punched the land. And farther eastward, the hillside plunged straight down, hints of architectural details poking through bush and grass. At the very precipice of that part of the hill stood another ruin. Perched on broken balconies and heaps of collapsed walls were figures in teal robes—Master Mystics.
There were six of them, their outstretched arms inscribing symbols into the air, calling forth energies to do their bidding. The magic stirred the air, creating a wind that whistled and whined. Ul tried to flex. Not a single muscle responded. Anxiety churned inside at the inability to move, a reminder of having once been trapped inside a gemstone.
The floor shifted. The tower grumbled. Ul peered into the tower’s infrastructure, adjusting the scope of vision to detect the finer details—cracks in the mortar, decay and mold in the wood, rust on the spikes and nails. The tower was crumbling from the force of the magic, and it began to lean to one side, toward the pink marble walkway of the Colonnade that veered off into the west.
Ul had a choice, either brace for impact against the ground and be swarmed by Soldiers or find a way to dismantle the magic net. Peering deeper into the magic, Ul hastily studied the containment energies. They were complicated but not complex, and with the slightest mental nudge, the chords unravelled. Ul flexed a muscle just as the tower leaned at a steep angle. Giving in to using a bit of temporal energy, Ul deflected the Mystic’s attempts at ensnaring her again.
Ul lifted both arms straight above and willed silky vines from the ends of each finger. The tendrils wove into one another, enduring a rain of arrows, and created a tight mesh that billowed like fabric as the supernatural wind caught it. The tower pitched at an impossible angle. Ul’s feet released their hold and slid off the edge. The wind caused by the mystical summoning lifted Ul across the sky, high enough above the Soldier’s heads, clear of the tower that crashed in a deafening grumble, sending clouds of dirt into the air that obscured Ul’s gradual descent.
The wind pushed Ul well past the Dining Hall and Kitchen, past the old castle wall, where the Colonnade turned to rubble on the edge of a grassy field. The jetty of woods lay to the north, and across the field, beyond the prison, Woedshor Forest was a swell of green that offered abundant sustenance and camouflage.
As the wind subsided, descent increased rapidly. Ul released the sail and it fluttered back through the air and settled down onto a half dozen soldiers racing along the Colonnade.
Ul hit the ground running hard. Pangs of hunger ripped through Ul’s stomach at the emptiness within. Refuelling was essential before fatigue set in. Ul tore through the field, grabbing fistfuls of waist-high grass and eating it, but the energy the plants provided helped only a little.
Soldiers in full armour surged from Soldier’s Alley at the south end of the field. Scattered among them were teal robes. Master Mystics and soldiers advanced on the field together. Remaining steadfast, Ul fled toward the Prison with its smooth flat walls and watchtowers at every corner, wanting to run faster than a demon could, but the reservoir of energy within was nearly depleted.
I can’t fall asleep now. I won’t let them capture me. I won’t—
Black dots disrupted Ul’s vision. A deep breath. Rushing toward the south arm of the prison, Ul ducked low into the long grass, tearing out more fists of weeds to be eaten. At the south arm, the smell of earth and pine promised a reprieve from this nonsense, and Ul headed south along the wall.
A high pitched sound pierced the air followed by a strange pause that seemed to interrupt reality. Ul waited out the uncomfortable sensation. Reality resumed in a rush. Energy flooded the air, smashing into the wall. Brilliant light blazed. Ul fell to the ground, blinded, gut aching.
Fighting a few soldiers at once was a possibility, even a few Mystics, but an army of soldiers and Master Mystics required a life cycle of energy Ul wasn’t yet willing to sacrifice.
Blindly, Ul felt at the air at first, then the wall, where the smooth stone was now pitted and jagged. In the distance, the thrashing of long grass grew louder—someone approached. Dots of darkness finally faded. Ul’s vision returned, taking in the rubble strewn through the grass and the hole in the side of the prison.
With a deep breath, Ul tapped into what remained of the biological reserve of energy within as well as what was required from the temporal reserve to shift every molecule beyond the Root Dimension. Only a few seconds were needed to get away. Ul shifted. What remained was a faded image of a tree demon, a phantom, untouchable by anything or anyone.
Ul flew through the wall of the prison next to the hole. The iron in the cell doors was dense compared to the empty air of hallways, so Ul stayed to the empty halls, which required less effort, less energy. From hallway to hallway, clear across the prison, Ul zoomed through the outer wall, over what remained of the field, and deep into Woedshor Forest, passing through bushes and tree trunks, making sure the soldiers and mystics and Sondshor Castle receded into the distance… until the biological reserve of energy became fully depleted.
Then, darkness—crippling, all-consuming darkness—as Ul slammed into the wide trunk of a tree.
This excerpt is from The Starry Rise and is copyright protected by Kit Daven, 2019. This excerpt is for your enjoyment only and is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.