Demon of the Mount

Demon of the Mount

 

This is a revised version of my story. The originally-published version is here.


 

Allard held his breath and drew the bowstring taut. The stub of his amputated pinky made the grip strange, though the wound was healed at last. He had his target. Half a second to take aim, half a heartbeat, and…

“Gyah!” The scrawny black squirrel leapt away at the last second, leaving Allard’s arrow lodged in the icy earth. “Not enough meat to be worth the trouble anyway,” he grumbled, though his stomach protested. The forested mountainside darkened as the sun dipped below the high horizon.

“Banwick!” the lad called, not entirely able to hide his nervousness. “Where are you?”

A rustling of brush a hundred feet or so off answered him. “Here, but keep your voice down.”

“You catch anything?”

Allard’s companion came stalking through the snowdrifts and bare trees empty-handed but for his own bow. “Nothing, as usual. You?”

Allard held up his one kill— a pigeon that’d ventured from its winter nest. Banwick frowned, dejected.

“That’s all? Damn dead winter anyway.”

“We should head back,” said Allard, “it’s getting dark.”

“What’s wrong kid,” Banwick said with a sneer, “afraid of the stories they tell about this place? Ghosts, demons, demiurges, who-hoo-hoo…”

“Shut up!”

“Better to be afraid of the duke’s men— we kicked up a hornet’s nest with that last raid. They’ll be after us no doubt.”

“Aw, we ain’t took that much,” whined Allard, pulling his threadbare cloak tighter. “Besides, it’s wartime! Ain’t they got better to do?”

“Ha, just the opposite. His Fluffy Grace the Duke can’t have us uppity peasants walkin’ all over ‘im, can he? Otherwise the queen-pretender might catch word, get similar notions. Anyway, the war ain’t our business any more. Avoiding it is.”

The pair spent another empty-bellied night huddled around the green fire of an alchemical heat pack kept low and pathetic so as not to draw notice from afar. And with good reason— stealing from the duke’s winter stores was a hanging offense to be sure, but deserting his army in wartime would earn a long, lingering crucifixion for draftees like Allard and Banwick. They’d run off into the hills with no plan, forced to steal what they couldn’t find to survive.

Still better odds than facing the queen’s mercenary marines, Banwick thought before drifting into a tooth-chattering sleep. Though not by much.

The next day they were back out again to forage whatever they might. Allard shivered and breathed icy fog while keeping an eye out for game, hoping he didn’t fall prey to anything himself, human or otherwise.

“Allard!”

He tensed and put a hand to his rusted antique short sword. Banwick’s voice carried an urgency he’d not heard before. What’s wrong? Have they found us? Allard’s mind raced with terrible possibilities. The man came loping down the slope as though a devil were indeed after him. But…is he smiling? Somehow that made Allard more nervous rather than less. “What is it?”

“Come on,” Banwick said, and said again later while he dragged Allard up the incline. “Come on, we’re almost there!”

“Almost where?

There.” Banwick stood beaming, his arm swept forward as though presenting him to the emperor.

“What…?” Allard approached the jutting rock formation uncertainly. A trickle, a splash. Flowing water, in this frozen waste? He crept closer, brushed aside a branch. And…steam? “A spring,” he concluded, “you’ve found a hot spring!”

“Yes!” Banwick danced and hopped from one foot to the other like a lunatic, ecstatic.

“That incredible! I didn’t think there were any around here. We might starve to death but as least we won’t freeze.”

“More than that. We can have baths, my young friend! Remember those? And gods know you could use one. I figure one of us can stand watch against any unfriendlies whilst the other takes his turn, then we switch.”

Allard gazed on the steaming pool with giddy anticipation. It did look inviting… “Alright, don’t gotta tell me twice—”

“Whoah,” said Banwick, clamping a hand down on the youth’s shoulder before he could get any closer. “Finder’s rights— I get to go first!”

*

“Shit, I’m lost.” Bestre plodded through the woods looking for his squad. They’d gotten separated in the dark but he dare not call out for aid. Not in this place, hells no. He lifted a wineskin to his lips but tasted only the last sour dregs. Great. Lost, cold and dry too!

They’d been sent to check out reports of outlaws, or maybe partisans of the queen prowling the area. But there were other, older accounts about this mountain, and those far more terrifying— savages performing human sacrifice, invisible monsters, demons, things even more sinister that men could not conceive of for fear of going mad.

Bestre shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “Stupid,” he said out loud with more certainty than he felt. “Just drunken stories, that’s all.” They must be. He looked up at the two full moons shining bright down through the boughs and tried to remember his navigation training to get some bearings. “Let’s see, downhill is that way, and the moons are to my left so…wait. That way is down too…aw crap.”

He picked through a tangle of branches dragged down by the weight of snow, and some birds overhead made his heart jump as they flew off. Ahead he heard something— water gurgling over rock. Maybe I can follow it back down. He crept toward it, faster now that he had a direction to fix on. He stepped out of a thick patch of underbrush to face the rising solid ground. Then he looked up, and his blood went cold as hoarfrost. No…

A demon stood towering over him. It shimmered silver at the edges and all blackest dark in the middle. It had the vague shape of a man, but rippled with muscles and was enveloped in ethereal vapors that twisted and writhed all around like a skin made of serpent ghosts. In one claw it held a sword the likes of which Bestre had never seen. And it was looking straight at him.

It snorted a stream of smoke, and Bestre managed to force his trembling, piss-soaked legs to turn and flee back into the trees. He screamed in terror, and he kept screaming when he heard that the demon was chasing after him! He tripped, scrambled to his feet, ran some more not daring to look back. He came to a sharp drop of more than ten feet and without thought threw himself over the edge. Just get away get away get away havetogetawaygogogo…

*

After some nameless span of time Allard realized he was no longer covered in a layer of hot water but of ice, and only then did the cold hit him. “Argh, that was dumb!” He gave up the chase after stubbing his toe on a rock, then hobbled back to the spring’s warmth before hypothermia too him. He tossed his sword onto a pile of clothes and slithered into the pool. “Oh, that’s better.” Who had that fellow been? It was dark but by moonslight it looked like it might’ve been one of the duke’s soldiers. Great.

From the other direction came the crunching of snow, then wheezy breaths. “Whawazzat? I heard screams.”

“Thanks Banwick,” Allard muttered, “great job guarding the place.”

“Sorry, can’t be everywhere at once. Should I go after—”

“Nah, don’t bother. He’s gone.”

“Still, if we’ve been spotted it means we’ll have to move on. Too bad, could’ve been comfortable here for a little while anyway.”

“Least I got my bath,” shrugged Allard.

“Yeah, all good things come to an end I guess. Meet you back there then?”

“Yep.” Allard luxuriated a few more minutes before crawling out again, steam roiling off him. He dried and dressed quickly then headed back to camp.

In the morning near the base of the mountain Bestre’s squad mates found him injured and babbling incoherently, and when they calmed him enough to hear his story figured it best to get away from the place as fast as possible. The commotion of their retreat caused Banwick and Allard no small amount of alarm, and more than a little debate about whether to scurry towards or away from it. Ultimately unwilling to be left alone while Banwick indulged his curiosity, Allard crept after his comrade in desertion, muttering curses while crouching amid the dead underbrush.

They needn’t have bothered with stealth. When Allard emerged from cover, his calves sore from the descent, Banwick presented yet another spectacle to behold. “Would you look at that…” The soldiers were gone but had left behind all manner of treasure: camp cloaks, heat packs, weapons, and—

“Oh, great gods!” Allard fell on the ration biscuits piled carelessly by a firepit and choked one down without bothering to chew.

“Take ‘er easy now,” Banwick said, handing the lad a nearby flagon of sour wine. “Food, such as it is, might be a fair shock to your system by now.”

“What,” asked Allard between swigs and coughing fits, “d’you think made them run off like that?”

“Hmm…” Rubbing his chin, Banwick glanced back up the slope where the sun had risen just over the ridge. Winded by his sudden gluttony, Allard huffed billows of breath that caught beams of morning light to paint a fiery halo about him.

Something clicked in Banwick’s mind, and broke into a toothy grin. “You know…I think this mountain just might be the perfect place to hide out after all.”