Time was a construct for mortals. That was what Father always said. He had taught that the passage of eternity made no difference to one that would live for eternity. More than a hundred years in the Darkstone had proved him wrong… Esperiel had felt every second.
All three billion, five hundred thirty-two million, thirty-two thousand, one hundred, and twenty-three of them.
Her footing was getting bad again. She caught the wrist of another demon as it attacked her, the knife-like talons of the monster descending onto her, stopping just before reaching her. Narrowing her eyes, she ripped the arm off him before delivering a shattering kick that sent him tumbling down the stoneface until he was smashed out of the way by a larger demon. His body didn’t dissolve into smoke – none of them did, not here. The Darkstone was one of the Vaults that Akaris had crafted for his children… this was the font of them, but within here, they were mortal. They could be destroyed… and she had been destroying them for years.
Three billion, five hundred thirty-two million, thirty-two thousand, one hundred, and twenty-four seconds.
The larger demon approached, coming up the hill, and Esperiel focused – these were the most dangerous. Ones this large usually had a carapace that could turn back an awkward blow and had power enough to shatter her defenses. She hefted the bone-talon she had ripped off the demon – it was nice of the demons to keep sending her weapons. She absently took a two demons heads off, trying to circle around the Archon, as they approached too close. Esperiel stood her ground, waiting for the behemoth to come – only with her back to the portal from this forsaken place could she have lasted this long.
Bodies shook free and tumbled down the slope to the rhythm of the hulking footsteps… there were more of the things then, hidden behind its bulk and the smokey air. Esperiel burned brighter, her wings blazing as she let them lift her up and off the ground, just as the pile of corpses she had been standing on shook free and fell away, and a behemoth came at her from below the pile, swiping at her feet and missing by inches. She twirled in the air, and for a second her eyes faced the ground, meeting those of the monster from below. Then she finished her rotation and the stolen talon cleaved its face in two.
Three billion, five hundred thirty-two million, thirty-two thousand, one hundred, and twenty-five seconds.
The other two behemoths came charging in, and she stepped once, twice, three times, each step perfect, each one dodging multiple attacks at once as she swept her borrowed blade through the leg of one of the monsters. It began to topple down on to the heads of the other fallen, reaching for her as it did, and she swept the blade at its neck. It made it halfway before catching on his spine.
Esperiel didn’t try to hold onto it – she let the falling demon wrench her weapon free from her grip, turning to meet the third one as a fist the size of a wagon descended on her. She raised a hand and caught it. Her arm, muscled through it was, looked pathetic next to the bulging monstrosity of the demon’s limb, and yet she stopped him cold… Dawnlight coursing through her, stronger than any mere muscle. She pulled, and the huge thing stumbled forward, yanked off balance by the shifting floor of corpses as it slowly collapsed and her strength. With it unsure of its own footing, she lifted it into the air, her wings beating the air furiously as she rose… then she hurled it back down at the ground.
Three billion, five hundred thirty-two million, thirty-two thousand, one hundred, and twenty-six seconds.
The thing hit with an impact that made her bones rattle with just the sound of it… and a second later there was a secondary crash as the mountain they had been fighting on, made entirely of demon corpses, began to topple… rolling down the rocky crest of the real hill, knocking down and carrying scores and scores of demons with it.
Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine…
For just a moment, no one came at her. The nearby demons were being swept away, crushed beneath an avalanche of their dead and not troubling her. She had a moment to breathe… so rare since she had trapped herself here to seal them in. She was so, so, so very tired. Her breasts heaved as she breathed in exhaustion, sweat dripping off them from the heat and exertion. She had begun this battle armed and armored with the finest tools in all of the cosmos, Dawnsteel creations of Father himself. A perfect weapon for killing demons, perfect armor to turn their talons and blades.
The last useful piece of her armor had shattered seventy-four years ago. Her clothing had burned or ripped or rubbed away long before then… it had been far more fragile than her armor or her skin. Her shield had broken ten years later, only the absolute mastery of its crafting having allowed it to last that long.
Her weapon had lasted longer, nearly a hundred years. For a hundred years she had fought naked, Dawnsteel in her hand, killing, fighting them back until her weapon had shattered about three hundred million seconds ago. She had been fighting barehanded since then, or with whatever weapons the horde of demons was thoughtful enough to provide her.
It had been Omodomos who had done it. Her armor had died a death of a thousand cuts over dozens of years, but to shatter a dawnblade… nothing less than the power of a demon lord would suffice. She could see him now, hovering on a crimson swell of power, looking over at the exhausted Esperiel as she tried to catch her breath while the demons regrouped and waited for the avalanche to stop. Demons could take nearly any form, but Demon Lords were inevitably human-looking… they had the shards of too many of the other Eternals in them to be as fluid and chaotic in form. Omodomos made up for it by wearing living armor – the shell around his body, black and crimson chitin, swayed and moved around him, breathing, seeking purchase. The carapace was trying to eat him, but like her own, his skin was far too tough… instead, it shielded him from harm, protecting what it still foolishly thought was its meal. She had traded blows with the Demon Lord 3 times in the last century, no more, and each exchange had lasted only seconds before Omodomos had retreated. It was on the last assault, twelve years ago, that he had shattered her blade.
The Demon Lord was a coward… he knew he could be slain here, so he waited – biding his time, letting lesser chaos-spawn die in his place as they slowly wore Esperiel down. He waited to swoop in on her as she weakened.
And he wasn’t the only one.
To his left, Agatharon flew on great black wings. His legs seemed to cut off into flame beneath the knees, but it did little to disguise his horrifically pale, gaunt form. He wore black armor of some kind, perhaps steel, perhaps something fouler… from here, she could not tell. He had never once engaged her in combat, but every few minutes he would hurl fire or ice or darkness at her, conjuring chaotic elements and casting them down upon her fight to confuse her, slow her, wound her. Esperiel longed to take flight and hurl herself at him, but that would risk exposing her back to Omodomos… and to the third.
Unlike the others, Zaastaroth did not fly. Instead, he was carried aloft by a thousand tentacles, stretching from where his legs dissolved into the writhing, tangled mass all the way down to the red rock a hundred feet below. Enormous, blazing horns erupted from his head, and he was notably, horrifically naked… the Incubus Prince wore, and needed, no clothing.
Of the three, she feared Zaastaroth the most. The others would not survive crossing blades with her in a fair confrontation, and even if her current state, she would give herself odds. That Incubus, however… she had fought him before. Three times. And all three times he had fought her to a near standstill before retreating. The Order of Flame had always tipped the scales in her favor during the long war on Mundus… but now she was alone.
The three waited – waited for her to make a mistake, to weaken. Agatharon and Omodomos tested her defenses occasionally, but Zaastaroth just waited, still as death, patient as Void. He would move when he was assured a deathblow.
He was going to be the one that killed her – Esperiel knew that.
She wouldn’t be the first Greater Archon he had killed since Becoming’s betrayal. Teriel. Reshiel. Dhuniel. Sariel. All of them dead now… Zaasteroth had killed them all. It was why he had to be stopped. Why sacrificing herself to keep him here forever was an acceptable cost… she could accept the afterlife if it meant taking him from the world before he could kill more of her brothers and sisters.
The demons were coming again.
Esperiel didn’t move until they were nearly upon her. Then she called flame to her hand, forming for a brief instant a shimmering blade. It sprang out from her in a strike that cut the air with a vicious hiss, cutting off the demon’s arm at the elbow. A second slash from the naked Archon cut the screaming demon in half, setting into onto the ground in smoking pieces. She whirled before the blade could die, a second strike cleaving through a hunk of rock as it took the leg off the next demon. As it fell, she took its foul head from its disgusting neck. She kicked it back at the next demon in line… one that was carrying a weapon.
It was a poleaxe of black obsidian… hardly the ideal weapon for the situation, but better than nothing. When he swung it at her, off balance, she caught it and pulled the demon into her, punching clearly through his throat as she took the weapon from his hand. Claws raked over her skin, and she felt the uncomfortable pressure of his touch, but the claws didn’t piece her Dawnlight-infused skin. He fell back, dying, and she swung the poleaxe in a sweeping chop that drove two demons back and cut down a third that couldn’t retreat fast enough.
That weapon lasted long enough for her to find a demon with a bone-sword. After she cut off its hand, flipping the sword into the air, she flew up to catch it before swooping back down on the demonic horde, pressing slightly forward to keep her footing as she sliced once, twice, her blade slithering through the guard of the next demon to open its belly and spill smoking blood onto the ichor-stained stone. It snapped at her with jaws and a jagged tail both, but she dodged with contemptuous skill and finished it with a third cut to the throat, one that flowed directly into another step forward and up, coupled with a sweeping stroke aimed at the next demon in the line.
A hulking monster with a sword came at her next. Esperiel dodged the sweeping blow of the demonic sword by the width of a blade of grass, then struck out in a pair of blows that maimed the demon’s weapon arm, then struck its muzzle from its skull. The demon fell toward him in a sudden frenzy of motion, trying to seize him with its remaining claw-hand, but the Archon ducked away, retreating back up the mountain three steps as the demon fell, and struck a blow that sheared off a portion of its skull and killed it at once. A demon rushed her from the side, and one enormous wing snapped out, knocking him from his feet as she spun, and she barely got her blade up fast enough to block the next demon’s sword. The creature’s vicious attack put her on the defensive, driving her to take another step back up the incline.
The demon missed a throat slash by a hair, nearly struck Esperiel with the scything return stroke, and had her wobbling on the edge of a rock as the demon surged forward. In the instant before the monster struck, Esperiel recovered her balance, abandoning the ruse meant to draw him out as she ducked under the demon’s blade, then surged inside its guard, struck a crippling blow to its weapon arm, then down to its forward leg in one single circular motion. The demon fell, but not before Esperiel’s sword had circled around again, using the demon’s own weight to add power to its upswing and all but severing the demonic monstrosity’s head as it fell.
Three billion, five hundred thirty-two million, thirty-two thousand, two hundred, and thirty-one…
Four billion, two hundred seventy-four million, eighty-six thousand and twelve…
Blood ran freely down Esperiel’s forehead, as it had for the last year and a half… the pressure on her giving her no time to recover, to heal. The wound glowed with Dawnlight, but it was too busy keeping her exhausted muscles going, her heart pumping, her mind awake that healing the simple wound was beyond her now. Her hair was soaked with the blood, disappeared into her crimson locks like it wasn’t there, but every few seconds she needed to flick her head to the side to clear the blood out of her eyes and let her keep fighting.
It wasn’t her only cut or scrape that she couldn’t heal anymore. Her left hand was nearly useless after she had blocked one of Agatharon blasts with it… it was blackened and burned. She walked with a limp since she had gotten careless and let a demon stab her thigh clearly while she had needed to devote her entire attention to defending against an attack Omodomos, and she had a slash across her side from where she had been less than successful in doing so. The Demon Lord came at her nearly every day now, still in short exchanges… but she was wearing down. The only part of her that was still pristine were her wings, the flames burning off the filth every few minutes as she fought – every single other part of her hurt.
It was time to face facts. Esperiel was well and truly betrayed. Oppal, her father’s sister, had been supposed to come to her aid… but she had not. She had stalled as long as she could inside the Darkstone, waiting for Mischief to show up, but she never had. Esperiel no longer believed she would be coming. It was entirely on her… and she couldn’t hold out any longer.
But if she was going to die, she was going to take at least one of the bastards with her… not one of the untold billions she had slain and who’s bones and broken bodies now formed the terrain, but one of the Demon Lords. The three of them wouldn’t get to brag to their Father how they had called her. Not all three of them.
Four billion, two hundred seventy-four million, eighty-six thousand, and thirteen. The horde was coming.
Esperiel clutched the obsidian sword in one hand and flung herself into the sky as her wings burst into cascading waves of flame. She aimed directly for the three Demon Lords and gave a wordless cry.
The shadowfuries rose up again, as she knew they would – they had been kept in reserve for the last hundred years or so, to strain her when if she tried to take to the air in earnest. The vague, chaotic winged shadowbeasts swarmed all around her, dancing just out of the range of her flames, threatening to swoop in and take her… but the real threat was that there were so many bodies in the way the first warning she had of Omodomos coming for her was when he burst through the shadowy wall of demons barely twenty feet before her.
He carried two hulking flails now, spinning and weaving with incredible momentum… the weapons that had broken her Dawnsteel. This sword would not hold up to a single parry. She spun in the air, forming into a corkscrew as she banked rapidly to the side, spraying flame in all directions and roasting thousands of the shadowfuries in an instant. She dodged the attack from Omodomos by the width of a single hair, striking out at him as they passed and finding no purchase in his chitinous armor. She felt Agatharon magic coming before she was it, and she let herself drop like a stone just before another thousand of the shadowy demons were consumed in a violet vortex of energy that broke through them, consuming the space she had been in just moments before in a violent maelstrom of power. Then Omodomos was on her again, and she was racing to keep ahead of his swinging flails.
She didn’t have the ability to hurt him… her blade wasn’t up to the task. Unless she had the time to find a seam in the nearly seamless armor, she would never even make to his skin – and in honestly, she doubted the ability of her blade to pierce that, either. No, what she needed was assistance… from Agatharon.
Esperiel flew and soared and dodged and stabbed and slashed. More than once she felt the wake of his weapons drag as her trailing hair as she moved, just barely missing her… but when she sensed the approaching magic again, and she abruptly reversed direction, coming inside of Omodomos’ next attack. The Demon Lord dropped the now useless weapon from his right hand to get between them, ready to grapple her… but Esperiel didn’t even try to find him with the blade. Instead, she planted both feet solidly on his chest and KICKED with all her mind, sending herself sailing in one direction and him in the other…
Just as a wave of sickly green fire from Agatharon washed over him.
She didn’t dare to hope that that would have gotten a Demon Lord of Omodomos’ power, but with luck it might take him out of the fight for a moment. She still couldn’t see Agatharon through the swarm of shadowfuries, but she had seen where the wave of flame had come from. Pouring Dawnlight into her flaming wings, Esperiel rushed through the thick, sickly air towards the Sorcerer Lord…
And abruptly found herself tumbling end over and through the air. Sky ground sky ground sky ground… Esperiel fought to find her bearings, to make her wings catch her, but she had barely begun to stabilize when she saw the tentacle coming like the arm of a giant. Zaastaroth had entered the fight… from somewhere. She still couldn’t see him, but abruptly his tentacles were everywhere… big ones the size of buildings, small ones like living ropes, lashing, striking. She had faced him before… if he had the opportunity, he would restrain her, leaving her easy pickings for the others all while remaining safe himself.
Tentacles swarmed around her like dropping vines in a jungle, and quickly Esperiel began to feel like a doll in a pocket full of string… tangled, wrapped, surrounded in a chaotic net of grasping tendrils. He couldn’t see her, any more than she could see him, but he was feeling for her… every time she hacked her way through a tentacle, the rest of them began to converge, slowly winding her closer and closer. A cold rain of frozen shards sprayed at her, Agatharon’s magic seeking after, splashing harmlessly off the thickest of the tentacles, battering smaller ones out of its way.
That was the best opening she was going to get. Surrounding herself in a blazing corona of the hottest fire her exhausted soul could manage, Esperiel flew up and through the gap created in the net of demonic flesh being woven around her. Holding her left arm across her eyes, she screamed as she threw herself into the maelstrom of ice. Pain flashed through her arm, her thigh, her cheek as razor-sharp shards of ice that didn’t quite melt in the fire slashed across her skin like knives, opening even her Archonic flesh as cleanly as it would any mortal skin… but then she was through.
Agatharon hovered just feet away from her, black wings flapping, eyes glowing with hatred… and with fear. Esperiel screamed the words of a prayer as her wings flung her forward, closing the distance with blinding speed even as he began to weave another spell… something defensive perhaps, or something to blast her off the face of Mundus. She wasn’t going to need to find out what it was supposed to do… she reached him before he could put it together. The demon was armored. She barely had time, and she needed to force a lethal hit immediately – she didn’t have time to play around with his armor. Thankfully, there was one part of his body that wasn’t protected…
Her sword flashed up and caught one of his black, leathery wings as she swept upward cleanly, severing it as easily as if she were cutting through smoke. The dark wing spun off to the right, still trying to flap in spasms as it spiraled down – Agatharon fell screaming in the other direction as he tried hopelessly to fly with only a single wing.
A coldly satisfied smile crossed Esperiel’s face. One down.
Still, the effort had cost her. The power needed to get her through the ice storm had nearly extinguished her wings, and the shadowfuries were approaching far closer now, no longer being turned just by getting near her. Like swarming predators they smelled her blood, seeing a moment of weakness and preparing to pounce…
And then Omodomos hit her solidly from behind.
The massive flail would have crushed a house to splinters. When it hit Esperiel that hard, it was the flail that shattered instead… but she paid for it. She cried out in sudden agony, the first splash of Archonic blood spraying across her pristine wings as her right shoulder was opened to the bone. She was falling, propelled downward by the force of the blow, and her arm didn’t move right anymore. She flapped her wings, heedless of the pain, trying to right herself… she could see Omodomos falling after her, holding his remaining flail in two hands now as his crimson glow propelled him down and towards her. Hundreds of Zaasteroth’s tentacles followed in his wake.
She slowed her fall, but not enough… she crashed into the seething mass of demons on the ground. She felt them grabbing at her, raking her with their claws… she was stabbed no less than a dozen times, the weapons sliding off her nearly impervious skin as they lacked the strength to overcome her Dawnlight but hurting her regardless. Almost as bad, she felt their hands grabbing at her… gripping her arms, her calves… her breasts. Esperiel was reminded painfully that she was completed naked, her body on display for the slavering hordes for a century as they waited for their turns to fight her.
Outrage flooded Esperiel, and her wings caught fire, fury fueling her magic. “Get off of me!” She screamed, sending flame hurling out in a wave around her. Plenty of the demons were incinerated… those that were not were pushed back. Esperiel narrowed her eyes, glaring upwards as the descending Demon Lord, and flung herself into the sky after him, twisting in a tight spiral and slashing across his impervious armor as she did. The flail missed her, and she ascended up, up, up, faster than he could turn and follow… and then dove back down at him.
Omodomos was just starting to rise when the swift Archon caught up to him, the speed of her dive and his rise both adding power to her attack as she slammed the obsidian sword through his chest… and it broke through the carapace armor. She felt her weapon touch flesh before it shattered in her hand.
Omodomos fell, leaving her holding the shattered remains of a weapon when the first tentacle latched onto her. She grabbed it with her good arm, ripped it off her so harshly that she tore the offending bit from the rest of the limb, but they just kept on coming, grabbing at her, surrounding her… and this time there was no gap left. She would need to blow through. Only one of them left up…
Mother might have birthed her soul like everyone else’s, but Father had shaped it into the perfect, unyielding diamond that made her strong… a prism to capture and reflect his divine Light. Esperiel reached deep into herself, into well of power that her soul had become, and was startled to feel just how weak the light had become, just how little Dawnlight she had left. She could see the bottom of the bottomless well of Father’s power.
It would be enough. It would have to be. Even if she fell, if she could take Zaasteroth with her…
She drew it all. Her shoulder, slowly knitting back together, stopped healing. Her thousand aches and pains emerged as she could feel the pain of all of the tiny injuries for the first time. Her brain swam from more than century without rest… and her entire body burst into flames as she crashed into the wall of grasping tendrils and snaking limbs. She felt a dozen of them break beneath the force of her charge, slashed by the power of her flames. Another dozen of them burned away as she made progress, aiming for there the tentacles were thickest, aiming for where the coward would be hiding, as well protected as could be. She burst into the center of the web like a blazing comet, whirling around, looking for Zaasteroth… and finding nothing.
He wasn’t hiding here at all. A coward, perhaps… but not so much a coward he wouldn’t abandon a safe place to try to trap her.
Flaring her Dawnlight, she began to cut her way out of the trap she had found herself in, but now the secure, safe middle of the knot of tentacles she was thoroughly surrounded. She tried to wrestle through them, dodging and tearing and burning and-
Quick as a snake, a tentacle snapped out and coiled around her throat.
Sleep, food, drink, and even breath itself had never troubled Esperiel before… but she had never been out of Dawnlight before, either. She abruptly tried to breathe and could not, the tentacle squeezing her throat harder than any fist, and Esperiel began to choke. Esperiel’s heart raced with a sudden primal fear that she had never encountered before, a sheer biologic reaction that the Archon had never needed to deal with. She scratched and scraped at the tentacle with her fingers, but she couldn’t get beneath it, couldn’t pull it away… it clung too tightly to her neck. She struggled and choked, fighting, but she couldn’t breathe… couldn’t breathe! The world began to glaze over with darkness, and she grew dizzy.
One by one she felt more tentacles wrap around her, encircling her arms, wrapping around her waist, pressing her limbs to her sides and crushing her breasts against her body while her field and vision grew darker and narrower. Esperiel looked directly forward and caught sight of Zaasteroth leering at her through a gap in his tentacles, barely twenty feet from where she had hovered after sending Omodomos crashing to the ground. He came closer to her, “walking” across the ground with feet of a thousand tentacles as he stared at her with a leer.
He was so close now… if she could get free… if she could just attack for a second, she could rip his head from his neck with a single pull… but she just… couldn’t… move…
Her flame was out now. Zaasteroth reached out and stroked fingers through Esperiel’s crimson hair. “Worry not, slave of Locleos,” he said, his voice a sibilant hiss. “I’m not going to kill you… I need you. But you’re too dangerous to leave running around, Esperiel… Just go to sleep. Sleep, Esper… It will be so much easier for you. Go to sleep, and I can let you suck air again…”
Esperiel struggled and fought for simple breath, but none came. Darkness gathered, points of light appearing before her eyes. She tried to pull at tentacles, but her fingers had gone nerveless and weak. “No,” she whispered, breathless, soundless.
Zaasteroth shrugged. “Have it your way.” And the thick tentacle wrapping around her waist whipped like a bowshot and smashed Esperiel into the ground.
Demons littered the rock, and both Esperiel and the tentacle crushed dozens of them, but Zaasteroth didn’t stop. He smashed into her the ground again, and again, and again, and she felt things break inside her, agony like she had never known blazing to life… felt her right arm break, her left wing crumple, something give in her chest. Then Zaasteroth flung her away, and she sailed through the air. She caught a fleeting glimpse of the demonic hordes below, the boiling mass of shadowfuries surrounding the Incubus, the rock wall of the Darkstone rapidly approaching…
And Esperiel sank down, into the blackness.