The wind blew acrid smoke towards Jean Corano as he crossed the street to the rubble-strewn alleyway. His stomach churned and his limbs seemed to almost hum, the energy in his blood heightened and active in the presence of so many Fell daemons. The roads around him were empty, eerily so; Soldiersfar had the atmosphere of a ghost town.
No, he decided, it was more like an open wound, bleeding and sore. Prince Dannan was the blade that had torn into the flesh of the city, his daemonic brood the infection that now poisoned her. Perhaps such a taint could be eradicated, but she would sicken for years – possibly never to return to her former glories.
Slipping into the alleyway, Corano nudged broken, blood-spattered furniture from his path and popped the clips on two of his utility compartments. Inside were two of his last three Ignus Orbs and he withdrew them, holding one lightly in each hand. Moving swiftly through the alley, over broken glass and smashed carpentry, under a ragged strip of blood-caked material that might once have been a dress but now resembled a discarded bandage, he reached the open square opposite. He found himself staring across a wide expanse now filled with carnage and debris at the high gold and ebony walls of the Great Library. Fire had charred the near flank, leaving streaks of soot as tall as a man upon the surface.
Picking his way across the square, Corano saw two wagons, the oxen that had pulled them lying in bloodied heaps, heads thrown back, ribs splayed open. The wagons were ravaged, the goods they once carried now spread across the square in a mess of splinters and shattered pottery. No human, dru’un or taromaani bodies were visible but evidence of them was, in pools of drying viscera and bright splashes of crimson and azure. Off to the left a small building still burned, pumping thin streams of darkness into the air. The silence was oppressive – even the crows were keeping their distance. Above these grim surroundings, the Library loomed like some ancient tomb and Corano approached it cautiously, his breathing shallow and his steps light.
Raising his right arm he squeezed the Ignus Orb, willing a tiny spark of Jhi into it. Immediately he felt it flare to life in his palm, swelling and burning.
‘You’d better be in there, you son of a bitch,’ he muttered, before hurling the orb high. The device soared like a rising comet, dragging a trail of red fire behind it to sail through a shattered stained-glass window. There came a loud, soft sound, like the drag of air into a vacuum – and then a thunderclap echoed across the square. The rest of the windows blew out, spilling twinkling, glinting glass to the ground. Flames licked up instantly, and for a moment Corano felt a terrible remorse for the hundreds of books he was condemning to the fire, many of which had never been copied and would be destroyed forever. He moved back and, as a horrifying high-pitched keening emanated from within, hurled the second orb.
An almighty wave of flame erupted within the Library’s interior as the power of both orbs combined and the near wall of the building sagged under the incredible heat. The gold coating on the metalwork peeled back like rotting skin, the wooden supports exploding in flames.
Suddenly a score of hakrids burst from the roof, raining smouldering wreckage onto the square below. Corano sprinted away, one arm raised protectively above his head. Hot rain fell as steaming metal shards and wooden embers zinged down around him. A white-hot splinter of steel slashed by his shoulder and he turned, dropping into a crouch to survey his reluctant destruction. A hakrid, its spindly limbs ablaze, smashed down beside him, skidding to a halt some way away. The daemon writhed and snapped, attempting to rise, but the fire was too intense. Corano ignored it, watching as several more did the same, crashing through buildings and careening into the ground. More followed them from the building, these untouched by the flames, squealing as the bright rays of sunlight cut through the clouds and stabbed at their ethereal flesh.
Corano raised his left arm, allowing his shadowsteel scythe to extend, first the haft and then the wide, curved blade. Holding the shimmering weapon two-handed, his almond eyes peered across it at the approaching daemons.
A hakrid dropped before him, its maw stretching open. He stepped smoothly to one side, spinning, arcing his terrible weapon through the air and slashing the beast in two. As it fell, Corano caught the attention of several more and turned to face them squarely. Their grouped attack was no match for his speed and he diced them into twitching pieces. Glancing towards the Library, he cursed. His plan hinged on leading them back to the inn, their Master with them – but so far Dannan had not emerged. As Corano turned to race back towards the alleyway the ground beneath him heaved and cracked.
He stumbled to one side, rolling on the ground and scrambling up. ‘You read my mind!’ he growled as the ground rippled and bucked. The Windchaser steadied himself, holding his arms out horizontally for balance as a gaping hole appeared before him. The hakrids pulled back, waiting, and he regarded them with a calm, patient stare.
The ground suddenly split, spewing rock splinters into the air. Corano pitched to the right, a terrible cramp knotting his stomach as he hit the flagstones. He came up on one knee as a vision of Hell incarnate appeared before him.
Shaking loose blocks of solid stone from his glistening hide, Dannan of the Pentuliche arose from the earth. His body was a pulsating mass of chitinous scales and his wide, wedge-shaped head sat upon a long, muscular neck, crowned with a mess of razor sharp thorns. As the Daemon-God dragged free his segmented bulk, Corano saw a score of thick, insect-like legs that stabbed at the ground with blurring speed. The Ulgathan’s arms were long and powerful, ending in snapping claws that bit at the air like greedy jaws.
Prince Dannan cleared the hole and towered above the Windchaser, three tails poised above his glowering face as though to strike like a scorpion, tendrils of raw energy wreathing his body and crackling like lightning. The abomination spread his six membranous wings, lifting his great body from the ground and blowing up a cloud of swirling grey dust. He regarded the Windchaser with cold, reptilian eyes, and Corano almost cursed at the folly of his decision – but he was committed now to facing this beast and he would see it through. As Dannan came close, he hurled himself to the left, racing back towards the alleyway. The Daemon-God bellowed something in Ulgathan and his hideous flies became instantly alert, speeding after the fleeing Windchaser, the burning sunlight ignored.
Corano burst from the alley mouth at full sprint, a hakrid hurtling out behind him to be blasted away by a whizzing windcannon bolt. The Windchaser’s eye caught Preya resting on the roof of the inn and he waved his thanks, silently urging her not to wear out the converter before those all-important shots. If we get that far… he thought, as around him the hakrids swarmed, shrieking their rage...