The creature stepped through the Gateway. He was twice the size of a man.
He flexed his arms with a roar. His chest muscles twitched. His red skin stopped at his waist. That’s where he ceased being a man. Below were the shaggy legs of an animal.
Thick muscles made him look like a knotted tree trunk. A pair of black, leathery wings stretched wide behind him. His jaw hung low, exposing two rows of sharp yellow teeth. The black tattoos covering his bald head seemed to shimmer and move. A solitary horn curved skyward from his forehead. A row of horns ran down his neck and shoulders, disappearing into his wings.
Char hoisted his staff in one hand and rushed forward to meet the demon—moving as fast as robes would permit. He shouted the words of a spell, letting the vapor concussion escape from his mind.
A thunder crackled. An invisible anvil rocked and the creature’s head sideways. The hit was strong enough to knock him backwards into the Gateway.
Char was on him. He brought his staff to the creature’s chest, delivering a blast of lightning shock and fire. The creature oofed. The demon brought up an arm. Char knocked it away with the head of the staff, delivering another shock and burst of flame.
The creature pressed toward him, lashing out. Char blocked the swing with his staff. The staff bent on the impact, but did not break.
Char hit the creature’s again with shock and fire.
Char chanted a lightning storm into existence. The room flooded with dark flashing clouds. As Char finished the words, he added a protection to the spell—the lightning would not touch him.
Lightning sparked the clouds and then struck out, latched to the demon. He howled as arms and legs where pinned back, entire body vibrating from the hit. Electric strikes scattered treasure in every direction. It melted gold into pools of goo.
The creature tried to take another step forward. A hit from another bolt knocked him sideways. Char visualized a metal belt surrounding the creature. It summoned more lightning to the demon. Flash after flash hit him. Char grinned.
Roaring in fury, the creature surged forward, beating his wings. Lightning continued to pelt him, but he pushed through the storm. Char’s eyes opened wide. In an instant, the demon was on top of him.
The monster swung an arm at Char. Char parried sideways, bringing the pointed end of his staff in an arc that sliced the creature’s chest. Blue ice engulfed the demon. Char rolled away. He jumped to his feet in time to see the creature break free. He looked at Char with amused respect.
His voice was metal scraping over glass, “I LIKE HOW FAST YOU ATTACK, BUT IT WON’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”
With that, he opened his mouth wide, and boiling fire poured forth in a liquid torrent. It spilled over itself in a rush to toward Char.
Char’s throat squeezed shut in a muffled squeak, but he managed to summon a wall of ice. The boiling fire crashed into it like a wave. It hissed and popped. Char retreated to what he felt was a safe distance to continue his spell-work.
The demon snarled and smashed through the wall. Shards exploded in all directions. He charged, feet pounding the stone floor like two trees. Char planted the end of his staff in the ground. He angled the head toward the charging creature. He leaned back to brace himself.
The monster threw himself on the staff. Black wings embraced them, as the demon stopped suddenly.
Char released all the magical charges he had remaining in the staff. Black spots obscured his vision. He squinted as the bolts detonated. The creature flew backward, laughing. Char blinked as his eyes adjusted. The creature hovered before him, wings beating in slow rhythm. His chest was blackened where the bolts had gone off, but he didn’t look hurt in the slightest.
“IS THAT ALL YOU HAVE, LITTLE MAGICIAN?”
Wasting no time, he brought up a palm. The ground responded, rock ripping up in boulder-sized chunks. These exploded upward, slamming the creature to the ceiling. Char turned his hand over, this time ripping rock from the ceiling. The rock pushed downward, burying the creature in an avalanche.
Char moved back. Rock continued to fall from the ceiling.
He began to chant short, quick words.
The wizard took a stick of charcoal from his pocket and fell to his knees. He forced his shaking fingers to move, sketching two overlapping circles in the dirt around his body. In one corner of the circles, he sketched a lamp. It was a symbol of protection.
He fumbled in his leather pouch for more supplies.
The pile of rock shifted. He heard the muffled roar of the creature.
Char’s hand found what it was looking for—his bundle of boar-fat candles. He untied the strap and shook them apart onto the floor. Grabbing five of them, he snapped of his fingers. They all lit in one puff. He began placing them on the circle while whispering, “South, Northwest, Northeast three. Southwest, Southeast, bind to me.”
Char began to recite another incantation. He could feel his magic pouring out. His physical strength was waning. He ignored the fatigue.
The rubble shifted. It was still for a moment, and then burst apart, showering the room with debris. Char held up his arms to protect himself. He visualized a hand of air. He used it to toss aside boulders as they careened his way.
In a blur, the demon was before him, snapping to a stop to stare at Char. His grin was wide. Spasms of fear racked Char’s soul. The eyes were pulled at him—trying to lull him into complacency. Char gave his head a shake. The creature’s hand was crossing the circles—
“Dinara!” Char shouted.
White light shot up from the circle, slicing through the creature’s wrist. With a startled scream, the creature retreated, holding the stub where a hand had been. Char grabbed the still-twitching appendage. He squeezed, ignoring the blood spray it caused. He focused on the hand. He could still see the aura of connection between the hand and the demon. Char began to mumble the spell of control. The creature screamed, shaking his head. Glaring, it paced back and forth beyond Char’s circle of protection.
Char completed the control spell. A green fog took shape, swirling and sliding in the air above the circle.
The fog shot to the creature, encasing him. For a moment, the creature grunted and struggled.
And then he stopped.
The creature’s face turned to Char. The motion was so slow and smooth that it was unnerving. The face held a confident smile.
A rasping voice floated from the creature’s gaping jaw, like a hollow wind across dried bones. “WHAT IS MY NAME?”
The words struck Char like a punch. Why had he even attempted the spell? How was he supposed to know the creature’s name?
Char was certain at that moment he was going to die.
He poured out another spell. It was one of his most powerful holding spells, sapping all his remaining strength. The fog around the creature turned solid, becoming a giant serpent. The serpent constricted on the demon, but he knew it wouldn’t hold. He had to retreat and get a better position to defend himself.
He spun to jump out of the protective circle, but the creature was already free, ripping the serpent in half. He laughed, throwing the remains of the snake at Char’s circle of protection. The candles scattered. The spell broke. The creature didn’t hesitate. He darted forward.
Char was three steps away, but the creature was a blur. He lashed out, slashing Char across the back. Claws tore deep, pulling chunks from his flesh. The claw caught on Char’s robes.
Char shrieked in anguish and stumbled, trying to get away. The creature held a handful of robes. The demon struck out again, sinking a second claw into Char’s leg. Char howled Laughing, it pulled him back. He was a toy in the powerful grip.
Char tried to pull the claw out of his leg. The creature laughed and lifted Char upside-down.
Char’s mind worked apart from his body, as Master Joseph had taught him. He was running through the list of spells he knew, trying to think of a way out.
The creature released his claws, letting Char fall to the ground in a heap. With a self-satisfied grunt, he knelt close. Char could feel the hot breath as it panted.
He mumbled quick words and a bright light surrounded him. It was a spell of refreshment, a small physical boost. It wouldn’t last long, but a little strength returned. His magical energy felt like dying breeze.
Char made himself focus. A strange calm washed over him. He realized there was nothing left. His mind was blank. His mental spell book was empty of usable spells. Char felt his magic float away into nothingness. His staff gave a faint flicker and then went dark. His tensed muscles dropped it, and it clattered to the ground.
He let himself drop, as well.
The beast smiled. “ARE YOU READY TO DIE, MAGICIAN?”
Char felt cold.
The spell will come. Embrace the calm. Search your mind. The spell will come. Every enemy had a counter—
The demon bent to pick up Char by the scruff of his neck, lifting him to eye level. Char looked straight into the black eyes. They drew him close, making him feel small.
“ANY LAST WORDS?”
Without waiting for an answer, the creature flung Char away. He hurtled through the air, helpless.
Char reached into the pocket of his robes. His fingers closed around the single eagle’s feather he kept there. It contained a spell—Feather Fall. It protected against a fall from a great height, making the user light as a feather. He didn’t know if it would work here.
Char whispered the one word required to activate the feather. It grew warm and dissolved into nothingness. Char felt like a wave of water had crashed over him. The whistling wind drew quiet. It felt like his flight slowed—
His head contacted the rock wall with a dull thud. His eyes blurred. The world began to dim around the edges. Warmth traveled down the side of his face and into his mouth. It tasted of copper and salt.
Was it possible to divine a creature’s name? He was out of magic. He couldn’t even try. Any remaining magic was trapped in his staff. Char glanced to where it lay—the other side of the room.. He seemed out of options.
He stared at his staff, thinking hard. His stomach lurched. He pictured a blue bird. It was fuzzy at first—but he swallowed and forced it into focus. He visualized the shine of black eyes. He saw the beak. The wings. He could start to count the feathers. He ignored the creature that was almost upon him.
When he heard the bird call, piercing and clear, relief washed over him. Char opened his eyes. It was a small cantrip spell he had learned as a child. He could cast it without using any magical energy.
The demon froze. A bird swooped out of the dark, passing over the creature’s shoulder on its way to Char. In mid-flight the bird started to change. It changed colors from blue to black. The bird shape elongated into something unnatural. In a blink, the bird was once again a staff. The wood snapped into Char’s outstretched hand. He squeezed it tight.
He had some magic left in the staff for an emergency—a time of great need.
The staff turned from brown to silver. It began to flatten. The bottom of the staff shaped to Char’s hand—a hilt. He admired his handy-work. It was a sword of pure silver. He hoped it would work on the monster.
Char wasted no time, the creature was almost upon him again. With one quick movement, Char sliced the into the demon’s head. The eyes widened in surprise as the monster staggered back. The mouth opened to speak, but the mouth only opened and closed. Without words, it crumpled to the ground.
Char let out a sigh and smiled. It had happened so fast. He slid to the floor.
The sound of a tsk echoed against the walls. The voice of the Overlord sounded all around him. “That will not do.”
The beast stirred. The sword felling to the floor with a clatter. Suddenly, it was a staff again—the spell used up. Char grunted as he picked the staff up again.
He watched in horror as the wound in the beast’s head began to close. The body quivered. The eyes snapped open. In the reverse of falling, the creature pulled to his feet—rising in an unnatural way.
“That’s much better,” said the voice of the Overlord. “I’m glad I stayed to watch the performance. I really do have another appointment to get to. I can see this is in hand. I’m sure you’ll be dead when I return.”
The creature smiled. “WHERE WERE WE?” He held up one hand and flexed his claws. “OH YES, I REMEMBER.”
Char had no other choice.
He looked with a fond smile at his staff and then smashed the head into the ground. Dried wood exploded in splinters, flying in all directions.
The spell that created the staff broke. A magic cloud of energy rushed in all directions. The cloud contained the lifeforce of an elder tree, sacrificed to create the staff.
Char inhaled hard, forcing air to flood his lungs until they burned. At the same time, he opened up his magical core—the empty pouch in his soul that held his power. That place was like an extra organ, grown strong over years of exercise—another lung. He stretched the walls. He breathed in the lifeforce around him. He filled himself to capacity.
He was about to do something he had never done before. His mental focus became hot, like a sword baking red in a fire. He visualized that metal—lengthening and sharpening. Char felt his self—his identity—bore into the demon’s mind. He felt the monster stiffen. He was no longer in his own body. He was the creature.
Surface thoughts flashed around Char. There was anger and surprise. Char could see his own gruesome execution in the creature’s fantasies. He shivered.
The magic sword of Char’s thoughts went deeper. He was piercing to the center of the creature’s core. He saw flashes of the demon’s world. Blackened rock. Above, smoke, sparks and fire. Char drove deeper.
He floated in memories. Char saw the creature in his youth.
Deeper still. He saw the demon as a child. He saw the creature with his family. He saw the smiles of his parents. The mother was gazing down at him. He was that child. The mother was smiling with a mouth of razor teeth. The look was soothing. The face was familiar. This was his mother. She was cooing and shushing. The growls and croaks were familiar. She was soothing him, “There, there. Don’t cry, little Sponyani.”
That was it! In a rush, Char’s mind tumbled backwards, flushed down a ravaging river. He opened his eyes, back in his own body. His ears rang as he shouted.
The creature’s hand hovered inches away, frozen and shaking. The muscles of his arm strained but couldn’t push his claws any closer. Char had spoken his name. The spell of control snapped shut. With the spoken word, the key turned, and the spell released.
Sponyani howled, shaking his head in defiance
Char’s licked the top of his mouth. “Return to your home!”
Forced to obey, the demon snorted, again shaking his head no. It stepped backward like a puppet on strings. He turned like a soldier and marched toward the open Gateway. Without looking back, he entered the opening and disappeared.
Char let out his breath in a gush. He blinked, feeling dizzy. His mouth trembled. Sitting against the rock wall, he let his eyes close.
Everything was gone. His magic was gone. His strength was gone. His staff was gone. It felt like his life was gone.
Char was no longer coherent. He was so tired. He could feel pressure on the back of his head. He tasted blood. Darkness began to close on his vision.
He was starting to hallucinate. It looked like something else was coming out of the Gateway. Char blinked. His vision doubled. Two objects were falling out of the shining opening and onto the ground. He blinked again. He could not consider it any more. With a heavy breath, Char lost consciousness.