Otters - in contrast to every other race in the Armygan - normally didn't live in villages or cities, but on their ships. The constant travelling complied with their vacillating natures more than living in one fixed place, and - more important - on a ship they were nearer to the river. The physique of the Otters with their short legs, the long trunk of the body and the tail which was rather a hindrance on land made them unfit for work on solid ground. No Otter really was able to till the fields, forge nails, pick fruits or bring in hay. Among all races, the Otters were the most specialized, and this adaption made their lives on land rather difficult. Their element was the water, and in it they excelled: quick brown shadows darting through the deep; shapes leaping up in a silvery shower of water droplets and jumping on deck with a single bound; nimble and very lively fellows, as fast and agile as fish, as elegant and astute as... as Otters.
Of course Otters could live on land. They hadn't gills after all but had to breathe air like an ansicc. But what had been a prime example of elegance in the water a moment before, became a waddling something on land. Strutting along on short legs, Otters seemed rather funny for an observer of another race. They didn't suddenly become clumsy or awkward or even oafish, but in comparison with other races whom the Gods created for running, they were not exactly good walkers.
For that reason, Otters never went a far distance from the water - in the Armygan, that didn't require much thought. Their ships were their home, and one could see them swim alongside as often as standing on deck. For sleeping, the Otters had to use a safe, dry place, and they needed space for the freight - but in every other respect, they preferred their fur wet.
When Khiray had traveled with the Otters, he had learned much about their way of life. He estimated that Otters spent half of their waking time in the water. He himself was by no means scared of water, but his fur didn't take constant wetness well, and he easily got cold while swimming. He preferred the dry refuge of the ships. Otters on the other paw were perfectly isolated by their fur; the wetness never really touched their skin. Wet Otter fur felt strange, but dry it was as dense and soft - although a little oily - as he could wish for.
The Fox had to leave the Otters in the end - less because he arranged it that way with his father who was waiting for his return in Sookandil, but rather because his style of living and that of the Otters was too different. Not that the Otters ever had let him feel like a stranger in their midst: their warm and open nature left no place for homesickness even. And it wasn't really the case that he'd been only useless luggage on their ships; the opposite held true: they were quite happy that someone agreed on doing all the 'dry' work for them.
But he had been an outsider; as often as he participated in their games, swam with them, shared his bed with them (Lysh always had an eye on him, but she never had the heart to spoil the fun for her friends) - he remained a Fox among Otters. He couldn't imagine to live all his life among them. It simply was too wet.
Although the Otters preferred the river, there were some settlements of their race. Most cities in the Armygan - other than, of course, the dark and gloomy tree-villages of the Leopards - were home for several races. There might be differences in the needs of the species regarding size, height and spaciousness of the houses, the width of the streets and brightness of the lighting, the color of the walls and the length of the beds - but all in all those differences were marginal.
This village, however, was completely built to fit the needs of Otters almost without any compromise. All houses rose on stilts, three quarter of them in the water, the rest on land. None of the bank houses were far away from the river. Even in case of low water, only two rows of buildings would stand dry. Walkways surrounded every house, connected by swaying suspension bridges, just like in the fishermen's quarters in Sookandil. There was nothing like a street, and no system in the arrangement of buildings at all. Houseboats lied at anchor farther away amidst the river, plump swimming homes not meant for travel but rather built to float with the up and down of the water. There were half again as much houseboats as fixed houses, and the mooring place of the houseboats changed again and again according to the needs and whims of the tenants.
Where stairs would have been necessary, ramps were visible - the short-legged Otters didn't like steps too much. Rope-ladders allowed them to climb from the water up to the houses, but that was the only compromise the changing water-level enforced on the Otters. No house sprouted more than a single story. Green overgrew the curved roofs, rising from earth-filled boxes. Some of the houseboats looked like swimming islands; hills of plants moving along.
Everything was oriented towards a single element: water. The village had no hinterland at all; a few meters behind the most remote houses wild and untamed woodland began. The Otters fed mostly on fish and the plants growing along the river; what agricultural products they needed they bought on their travels. The same with orchards or cattle farms or iron mines or charcoal burner's kilns: none were present. The village faced the river, and the river alone; a dry refuge for the otters, different from everything known to the land-dwelling races.
Here, those Otters lived who felt too old for long travels, the few who rather liked it to stay in a single spot, and a number of those who had left their homeships only temporarily. Among those were the injured who sought the peace and quiet, but mothers with very young cubs too. Little Otters possessed another type of fur than the grown-ups did, more dense, but fuzzier, less streamlined. Although Otters could swim without having to learn it, the little ones were afraid of water, a natural protection because the fur formed the necessary properties for swimming only after the first months of living. When they were about six months old, they were gotten accustomed to the river: They were thrown into the water.
The dense fur captured countless tiny air bubbles and gave the young Otters - who could neither talk nor walk at this age - enormous buoyancy. They flopped to the surface like a piece of cork. Protected from drowning by this quality, the Otter babies exercised their innate swimming instincts, sheltered by their parents from drifting off or encountering hungry river animals.
Young Otters were born, brought up and educated on traveling ships too, of course, but some mothers simply preferred the safety of slow water and well-known territory for their babies. Maybe that was the original reason for Otter settlements being founded.
Khiray knew that there were only two such villages along the Otterpath - although many Otters lived in this region, most favoured ships as home. In fact, three times as many Otters had chosen this part of the river as Furrys of all other races together. In the vicinity of Dorn's Rapids and some way northward, no other Furryfolk lived at all; their villages graced only the northmost and southmost parts of the Otterpath. There was but one exception: Bear Mountain, an isolated community where mostly Bears lived. Bear Mountain kept contact with the world mostly by Otter ships; the solitary and reserved Furrys didn't embrace company.
"We don't see many strangers here", the speaker of the Otters remarked. Although there were seldom people in an Otter community who acted as governor, lord, or leader, the water folk knew something like captains - Furrys who decided about the route or the daily work, who settled arguments or decided what to do in case of an emergency. That was not necessarily always the same Otter; someone who thought himself qualified took the helm when a leader was needed, and if the other Otters too believed he was up to the task, they even followed his commands. Saswin had always frowned upon that method - in his opinion, a system like that could only end in chaos. But Khiray knew from his own experience that it worked. Maybe it was not the right thing to do for Foxes or Badgers or Deer, but with Otters it was an efficient proceeding.
In this case, Fryyk was the speaker, a rather young Otter with rusty-red fur and blazing green eyes. He was bigger than Lysh, almost as big as Saljin when standing - Otters were not exactly known for their size.
The Foxtauress was surrounded and admired by all Otters. An elder Otter mentioned that he'd seen Foxtaurs in Drun'kaal once, and that they were not even scarce there, although not as common as Oo'men - once every few weeks a ship of the four-leggers dropped anchor in the capital.
"Inhabitants of the Golden Shore", Saljin explained to Khiray. "In the south, they cultivate shipping and navigation although the air at sea is not good for our fur. There are islands in the ocean, south of the Cayvol Mountains, that have been settled by those seafaring Foxtaurs." Khiray was amazed once more by the diversity of Saljin's world which was in no way inferior to the Armygan, and he was annoyed that he had never seen a trace of the Foxtaurs during his days in Drun'kaal.
"We have difficulties", Khiray revealed to Fryyk after the excitement of the greeting had ceased (some of the very young Otters climbed across Saljin's back, but the Foxtauress happily put up with the games of the cubs).
"Hm", Fryyk said and raised his eyebrows. Young he might be, but he obviously had his experiences: he made no promises before he knew the full story.
They gathered around a hastily built fire - they still had bright daylight, but this way the Otters could serve their guests fried fish while Khiray told them about the happenings in Sookandil. The Otters listened with wide-open eyes. Demons? Corrupt governors? Battles and massacres? That didn't sound like an actual report, but rather like an adventure. "Big fish", some Otters murmured, meaning 'tall tale' among them.
But the tongueless Sarmeen could bear witness of his brother's cruelties. He couldn't utter a comprehensible word, but he was a living proof by himself. Pallys showed some magic tricks from his repertoire, and soon most of the Otters were convinced. In their ears everything still sounded like a tall tale, but if it was one, then the storytellers employed a hell of an expenditure to make it believable.
Unsettled, the Otters observed Pakkahts silent, watchful march around the assembly, eyes and ears directed towards the forest, the weapon always in his hand. The Deer had insisted that the whole crew carried their weapons. Kinnih looked somewhat lost with the big sword Pakkaht handed to him, and Khiray was a little uneasy with his Dekka'shin which he didn't really master at all. But Saljin carried her weapon as if it was perfectly natural for her; even Pallys didn't seem to feel the weight of deadly steel at his side, and the Rats never went anywhere without their little collection of daggers and knives, anyway.
"You cannot destroy the Demons?" Fryyk asked.
"That is a task for magicians", Pallys mumbled. "It's not really impossible, no, not in case of the lesser Demons." Lost in thought, he turned the staff in his hands he had stopped the Bear Demons with. "You can stop them. With a little luck and skill, one can kill the body they use."
"Why don't we do it, then?" Kinnih blurted out.
Pallys looked gloomily at him. "I wouldn't rely on my luck alone. What may be a mortal wound for a Furry will only weaken a Demon. Ordinary wounds that would put us out of the action, a Demon doesn't even feel. You have to hack those beings to pieces before they give up their ghost. And even then they are not really dead."
"Not dead?" the young Badger repeated breathlessly.
"Demons are creatures of an eon long before our reckoning of time. In the Age Perennion, the third of the eight Ages, Sharridh the Shaper and Alkhumaln the Unshaper warred each other. It is told that they quarreled about the proper way to give shape to the First Beings. Their conflict spawned the Leviathan, the Clayborn, the Arcanes - and the Demons. That means, the Demons are offspring of the First Beings and thus belong among the oldest creatures of the Multiverse. Only the Aryonamai and of course Yasitan the Ancient First and his children Sharridh and Alkhumaln themselves are older, and they are Web-Born." Pallys plucked at his ears nervously, as if the mere telling of that tale of long-forgotten days caused him pain. Khiray didn't understand a word. He knew that wise people counted several Ages, but the old tales spoke of gods and super-beings, and for myths like that the Fox never had patience enough. They were legends, mixing truth and fantasy so thoroughly that one was virtually indistinguishable from the other. There were countless variations of them, and even though Khiray didn't rule out the possibility that a great, elementary truth hid somewhere among them, he thought it impossible to find it. He preferred rather tangible questions and answers instead of the misty mythology which shrouded the past of the Multiverse.
But the Demons came right out of that misty mythology, and they were a tangible problem for sure.
"The Demons are so old that they were created according to other Laws than most other creatures, and they live by other rules too. Their powers are - amazing. They master magic in a way not even the best magicians of the Armygan can recreate. Magic flows through their veins like blood. They are - in our Sphere - not really material, but they can use bodies, form them or cloud themselves in illusions. There are thousands of different kinds of Demons, each one with unique strengths and abilities. I know only a few of them, and I don't have clue which ones we'd face. Only Azzhuzzim Beladanar is no stranger to me. The Lord of the Worms is one of the mighty in the Second Circle of Hell, one of the younger Demons. I know even less about the Circles of Hell than about the Demons themselves, but I have heard that an everlasting war tears through all the Circles, sometimes open, sometimes hidden. Alkhurridh, the ruler of the First Circle, would surely lose status if Azzhuzzim Beladanar succeeds and is able to move freely in our Sphere. The Demons always had a thing for the Sphere Nesond."
"Alkhurridh", Kinnih mused, totally immersed in the fantastic pictures the tale aroused in his agile mind. "That sounds somewhat like Alkhumaln... and Sharridh, too."
Slowly, Pallys nodded. "When the war between Alkhumaln and Sharridh, back in the Third Age, reached its climax, both merged into a single being: Alkhurridh. Alkhurridh knew that Yasitan the Ancient First would deprive him of his place as Shaper and Unshaper, and so he gathered the Demons around him and settled on the Level Urghod in the Sphere Khurun. That is the second of the six Spheres of the Multiverse, a very unpleasant place made of fear and rock. The region of Urghod that has been settled by the Demons is called Hell since times forgotten.
Alkhurridh ruled, unchallenged, for eons, until in the Sixth Age, Thumon, the discontent among the Demons started a war among them. Hell was divided into nine Circles. Alkhurridh kept his powers in the First Circle, the most powerful of all, but he lost control over the rest."
"What did the Gods do?"
"There were no Gods at that time. They were born in the Seventh Age, Faraigon, just like the Archangels." Pallys shrugged. "But that was long ago. The stories won't help us. We don't know the abilities of the Demons that oppose us - even Galbren probably doesn't know. And even if we did, we have no possibility to kill them." He raised the staff. "The energy of that magic toy is limited. I don't have other tools, and I cannot create new ones. I'm no magician. And we can't even fight the bodily manifestations of the Bear Demons. They are terribly strong and fight with a cruel rage."
Fryyk shook his head. "What do we have to do with all this? We don't have a magician here to help you. You said you want to travel to Drun'kaal where the Drunlord's magicians would deal with the problem. That sounds like a good solution to me. If you need something - provisions, medicine - we can help you out. But I don't know what more to do, really."
"I had hoped to rent Otter ships", Khiray stated. "We would have some difficulties to overcome Dorn's Rapids with the 'Silver Ansicc'."
One of the Otters murmured: "They still call the rapids after someone who drowned there. I'll never understand those long-leggers."
The speaker of the Otters nodded while mustering the steamer. "It could be difficult."
"But not impossible!" Kinnih cried out agitatedly. "Khiray said it!"
"Not impossible, no." Fryyk thought about it. "But easy... Well, I don't know much about those big ships. About the Otter boats... See for yourself."
Indeed. The only ship mooring at the short landing-stage was the 'Silver Ansicc' itself. There were no bigger Otter ships present, every single one was on its way. Only some small boats gently rolled on the river, hidden in the labyrinth of struts. There were the houseboats, of course, but they weren't suited for bigger travels. "You'll probably meet other Otters, farther downriver. Maybe you could rent a ship of them."
Khiray let his head drop. "A ship with full freight? Far off any port? No captain would make such a mad deal. I myself would never change my ship in the middle of a journey."
Fryyk sighed. "It's really an unusual request. But we Otters are an unusual people. Maybe a family downriver will go for it."
The Fox tried to imagine how to carry out a deal like this. First they had to find an Otter ship. Traveling downriver at full speed, they would hardly meet ships going in the same direction - neither could the steamer pass by many of the quick Otter boats, nor would Otters behind them try to catch up. That meant they could only talk with Otters going upriver or mooring somewhere. And that again meant they had to stop and turn before even being able to talk with the Otters. Even if one out of ten captains would be willing to make the deal - which Khiray doubted - they had to stop several times. And even if they could find a captain who'd take their gold, that one had to ask his family and crew about their opinion. No captain could decide his ship's fate alone.
On such a search, they could easily waste all the time they had won by travelling the Otterpath. No, they couldn't even think of such escapades. If they couldn't get an Otter ship right here, the 'Silver Ansicc' had to do. Khiray was confident that they could make it...
...confident, save a tiny bit of doubt gnawing at him. Dorn's Rapids were dangerous. He knew the power of a torrentuous river. Even a sixty-meter steamer would become a plaything of the waves.
And this game was deadly.
"No, thank you, but we don't have time for more stops. I hoped I could send back Kinnih and Delley to Farlish, maybe Shooshun, Pakkaht and Kaslin-Ray too. I would've traveled on with just Saljin, Sarmeen and Pallys."
"Hey!" the young Badger protested. "We belong to the crew, don't we?"
Khiray looked down. "Sure, sure. To sail the 'Ansicc', I'm going to need you all, especially when we cross the rapids. But if we had an Otter boat, that wouldn't be necessary... I don't want to put anyone of you into danger."
"You'll need us when the Demons attack", Kinnih claimed. "You cannot fight them alone."
"No one can fight the Demons, young fool!" Pallys growled. "Khiray is right. You have nothing to do with that affair."
Fryyk raised his shoulders. "From the sound of it, that doesn't matter much, does it? This Galbren seems to be of the vengeful kind. He won't forget anyone, even if that one is only ship's boy on your steamer."
"He's right!" Kinnih remarked excitedly. "He'll want to take his revenge on me even if he catches me in Farlish!" He sounded as if that was a pleasant prospect. "We're in this together, all of us. Either we make the journey, or the Demons kill us. Just like in the tales - all or nothing! This ship and this crew, we belong together!"
The Fox stared at Kinnih, surprised. Khiray could recognize himself in these words. Some weeks ago he had thought just the same way. Like in the tales. An adventure to face with enthusiasm and exuberance. Spice in a life devoid of surprises.
But the icy shadow of death had fallen on him. The adventure wasn't like in the tales at all. He could die. Or worse, Kinnih could die, and he would have to bear the young Badger's death for the rest of his life. Kinnih didn't know what it was like to fight for his life; he was inexperienced and high-spirited.
The possible death of his companions, Khiray noticed, depressed him more than his own. He had chosen his path - and decided about their fate, too. And no matter if he had had any right to do so, it was too late to change his mind. In that, Kinnih was right: they had to fight together or perish.
His gaze involuntarily wandered across to Saljin. The Foxtauress had suffered the greatest loss, and she was far off her true home. But she seemed to be as calm as possible. She had the composure of a warrior. Khiray wished he could stay equally cool while studying their prospects. But he was too afraid. He feared death, and maybe even more the call of the Demon Khezzarrik khi Valangassis.
"Peaceful harmony ", a voice said. "I didn't expect to meet our adversaries so soon." The voice belonged to a being resembling a Wolf - but the moth-eaten fur, the dull eyes, the smell of decay and the skeleton-like shape with its skin flapping around the bones like a loose bag made clear that it was not a normal individual of his species. A Wolf in such a bad shape would have dropped dead. Moreover, despite of Pakkahts guard he had appeared out of thin air.
A Demon. Khiray knew it even before he recognized the old governor Chinnap's face. Chinnap was dead. Did the Demon use his actual corpse, or did he just imitate his form? The intended effect, however, was achieved immediately. The unarmed Otters scuttled in every direction. Cubs screamed and jumped into the water. Seconds after, Khiray and his crew were the only ones standing at the fire.
"A'er?" Sarmeen murmured insecurely, unable to form the syllables with his mutilated tongue.
"My dearest boy!" The Wolf beamed. "I'll give your ears as a gift to your brother, as a decoration for his room."
Sarmeen's expression darkened. He hissed some insults at his father's corpse. Khiray couldn't understand him, but the Demon seemed to know exactly what Sarmeen meant since he laughed out loud. "What a creative genius, my boy! I'm sure you'd have made a perfect governor. You are well aware, of course, that not even Galbren's death will help you to my post."
"Enough of the games!" Pallys thundered. "You are not Chinnap! Tell your true name!" The Rabbit held the short staff in his hand he had used against the Bears in Sookandil, but the Demon was not very concerned about the threat.
The Wolf bowed. "I'm called Hhrugha khi Dmurag. My true name I cannot tell, but you would be unable to pronounce it anyway. This one will do for now. You may scream it when I drag you down to Hell." He scratched his head. "Azzhuzzim Beladanar commanded that you shall be brought to him alive. I think we'll dine on you most excellently. Your suffering will be as exquisite as only Beladanar can make it. He is a true artist, a gourmet of pain."
Khiray tried to concentrate. The 'Silver Ansicc' was still under steam, but the engines weren't running. At the time the big ship took up speed, Hhrugha would be aboard. The Demon could kill them at his leisure. There wasn't even a way to flee on land, only impenetrable forest beyond the settlement.
And if they managed to flee, the Demon would vent his anger on the Otters, slay the helpless Furrys and follow the ship somehow. The Otters knew too much. Hhrugha couldn't let them live - even if he had any intention to do so.
That way or another, they had no choice. They had to destroy the Demon and hope that he was the only one around. Khiray tried to ignore what Hhrugha's arrival really meant...
...everywhere, they could appear everywhere...
...and mustered his strength for the battle.
The Wolf grinned and bared rotting black teeth. "I'd love to describe what will await you, but no matter what I say, Beladanar will still top it. I can only promise you that it will take a long, long time. And between our meals you may be allowed to witness the pain of your friends, in a exquisite cage in the palaces of Hell." He ran his claws through his fur. Sticky tufts of hair came off the decaying skin and drifted to the ground. "We will take care of you, in every possible shape, in every possible way. Our little snacks." The dull eyes seemed to put on a dreamy expression. "And I will get the best moments for my efforts. I found you. My reward will be limitless."
Sarmeen growled deep in his throat. That sound could never be deformed by a missing tongue: it was an expression of pure hate.
The Demon in the mask of his dead father giggled. "You, my dearest son, will not satisfy our appetite for long. So tender, so delicate - you never were much of a warrior. You could never think of a plan as beautiful and elegant as the scheme your brother is executing right now. How could you cling to such old-fashioned values like honor and magnanimity? If you'd made common cause with Galbren, like he proposed, you would not have suffered. But you had to insult him, did you? Really, what other choice did you leave him? I'm sorry about your tongue, but you will lose other parts of your body for sure before we send you into oblivion." He turned to Saljin. "And you, you really had to join that rebel?" He gestured in Khiray's direction. "You should have perished with your people. That would have been painless and quick. Those living ones, always clinging to life! As if the world would not swarm with mortals already. - But I won't complain. You are most appetizing for poor mortal flesh. Many hundred Ushinki will make the effort to don that soft, useless skin, to take you in your own grotesque way and to savour your desperation, your pain and your hopelessness. Maybe we'll chain you to a pedestal in Beladanar's most beautiful chamber, with fine iron shackles, as a symbol for Beladanar's victory. Every visitor will be given the opportunity to taste you, if Beladanar's generosity permits it." The Demon played with his swords. He carried two of them; Khiray thought he could recognize both as Troll steel weapons. Then the head of the being turned around rapidly, and Hhrugha stared into his eyes. "About our little rebel, now, I couldn't even imagine what Beladanar will prepare for you." He sniffed the air, then he smiled with rotten lips. "No doubt he will allow you to watch your little lover at every moment of her tasty suffering, from your own comfortable cage. Oh, that would be wonderful! The torment of the soul is so much sweeter than the mere agony of the flesh! You will suffer with her, you will be humiliated by her pain and your own helplessness, and her torment will be twice as exquisite by the knowledge that every one of her screams will penetrate your very soul. And finally, when Beladanar gets tired of his four-legged toy after many months of pleasure, then your own agony will begin." Hhrugha scratched his ear. "Of course, only Beladanar decides about that matter."
"Enough!" Khiray called out. The recitation of the Demon hat hit him hard, almost paralyzed him. To offer pictures of utmost cruelty like a dinner in five courses... He didn't want to imagine that this was exactly what they were for the Demons. Dinner.
But Hhrugha talked and talked instead of attacking. And he had to know that no one of them, unter the threat of a fate like this, would permit to be captured alive. The Demon was alone. He couldn't overpower them and drag them to Hell without killing them before, and by the tentative way he acted, Khiray got the impression that Hhrugha would be the killed one, rather. Maybe he was a lesser Demon, maybe Pallys' magic could put an end to his unlife.
Of course! Hhrugha didn't do anything else but play for time. He waited...
...waited for the arrival of his reinforcement, for other Demons, for the reopening of the gate.
"Fryyk!" Khiray shouted. "Get the Otters aboard, quickly!" Before he even finished his sentence, he stormed onward, swinging the Dekka'shin in a half circle, just as he had seen the Foxtaurs doing it. Hhrugha grunted in surprise and could just barely parry the attack with his swords, or else Khiray's charge would have severed his head. "Delley, Kinnih! Heat up the engines! We've gotta run!"
The Rat and the Badger obeyed and hurried to the 'Silver Ansicc'. Pakkaht, Sarmeen, Saljin and Kaslin-Ray rushed ahead and joined Khiray. Shooshun stayed undecidedly at the fire. The elderly Tomcat was no great fighter. Pallys took his staff and grabbed a burning piece of wood with the left hand. The Fox couldn't see whether Fryyk followed his order. Did the Otter know the danger the settlement was in? Would the individualistic and sometimes stubborn Otters flee in time?
Gate would bring more Demons here. It was just a question of time. How many minutes - or seconds, even - did Khezzarrik khi Valangassis need to penetrate the 'Levels and Spheres'? Khiray had no idea about how the gates worked; he could only guess. Khezzarrik's figure did not appear yet, nor did it show up when Hhrugha arrived. There had to be some time involved to accomplish that sort of magic, or else the Demons could have materialized easily on the ship.
Hard pressed by five fighters, the Demon retreated hastily. He was really good with swords, but he was no match for that many attackers. Khiray stood back. He was no master of the Dekka'shin; no sense in hampering the others and standing in their way. There were more important things to do. Fryyk argued with a group of Otters. Khiray joined them in a hurry.
"You have to go immediately!" he shouted at them. "That Demon is not alone! Others will be here any moment! We have to cast off now!" The Otters stared at him unbelievingly until he shoved them in the direction of the ship. "Hurry up! They will kill everyone who's still here!" Or maybe they wouldn't kill anyone, which was the worse prospect by far.
"Our village!" one of the Otters uttered.
"The settlement is lost. The enemy is already here." Khiray pointed at the fighters. "You must flee, now!" Facing the obstinate Otters, desperation swept over him. At least eighty, maybe a hundred Furrys were here - children among them, injured Furryfolk, mothers. Many of them had hidden at first sight of a drawn weapon. They hadn't even time to collect their necessarities, they had to go now!
"We cannot leave our houses!" Fryyk said. "We have worked on them for quite some time. It would be a pity."
"It would be a pity if your pelts would grace a Demon palace floor, but then it's too late!" He stared furiously into Fryyk's face. Suddenly, the eyes of the Otter got wide and round, and he looked past Khiray.
Khiray turned around. Pallys started to set everything on fire that looked as if it would burn. "Fools!" the Rabbit shouted. "The Demons will spare no one!" Otters fled their burning houses. A few groups actually got on board of the 'Silver Ansicc'. Confused and frightened, the Otters tried to escape, virtually climbing over each other.
Fryyk opened his muzzle, closed it again, then he shook his head. "Damned be the day we let you moor here", he whispered sadly.
Khiray left it to him to supervise evacuation and to take care that no one was left behind. He looked around for a sign of a gate to open, but he couldn't see anything.
Hhrugha still kept up with his four attackers. He had gotten several wounds, but it was exactly as Pallys had told them: they didn't slow him down. He didn't even bleed; his flesh gaped open and revealed necrotic tissue. Half of his jaw was shattered and dangled loosely, but the only result of this injury was that he didn't curse at his enemies anymore.
No wonder the Foxtaurs couldn't stand their ground against the two Demon Bears. This Demon alone was a hard nut to crack. While Khiray was looking, Saljin could land a crucial hit. Her Dekka'shin severed the right arm of the Demon. Kaslin-Ray jumped and wrestled the Troll steel sword from the still moving fingers. He didn't take the time to admire his acquisition but thrust the weapon deeply from below into the body of the Wolf body. At the same moment a strong blow by Pakkaht hit the neck of the Demon. The head literally jumped off the shoulders and rolled across the ground. The four uninjured fighters made a step back. The Wolf trunk waved helplessly with the single left arm, cut the air in blind fury with the second sword and finally dropped heavily to the ground.
Pallys had been wrong. It was possible to kill a Demon.
A deep hum drew Khiray's attention. Some distance back, at the seam of the forest, almost between the trees - didn't the air shimmer and flicker? Was this the first sign of Khezzarrik's gate?
He turned around. The Otters finally had agreed on instant flight. No one tried to put out the fires. They would choke by themselves, anyway; the sappy green around most of the homes limited the extent of the fire. But Pallys' action had the desired effect. The Rabbit stood at the bank, ears dropped, staring at the fleeing Furrys. Khiray knew his old teacher regretted the end of the settlement. But they had no choice in the matter. Khiray didn't know whether Gate had found them and brought Hhrugha here for that reason, or whether the Wolf Demon had been sent to the Otter village by chance to look out for the steamer and ask some questions. He suspected the latter; why else had the Demon been alone? The powers of evil had been lucky.
It was possible that Hhrugha wouldn't have harmed the Otters if the 'Silver Ansicc' had never moored here. Galbren couldn't afford to raise too much unrest and attention in his future country. But on the other hand, the Demons were cruel and greedy for the pain of others; they might ignore Galbren's plans, cut down the Otters and risk the wrath of the Archangels.
But no matter what would have been - it was too late to change things, and by now the Demons would not spare the Otters who knew entirely too much.
A loud curse made him start. Pakkaht hat uttered it. Khiray hurried to the place where the Demon corpse laid.
Or rather, had laid. Arm, head and body had changed into three heaps of jelly-like matter, similar to a sea jellyfish: a semi-transparent, grey shape marble veined with slimy strings, slowly pulsing from within. But those jellyfish were not helpless like water-animals on land: they started to crawl across the ground, towards each other. The part that had been the body started to produce foamy bubbles on its surface.
Kaslin-Ray raised the Troll steel sword and thrusted it into the biggest jellyfish. The Demon shuddered and shook. The weapon slided into the matter up to half of the blade. The Rat tugged at the sword to get it free, but in vain: now the Demon was holding it tight. Suddenly, grey matter exploded upwards, foamed alongside the sword and devoured it - and Kaslin-Ray's hand with it.
The Rat cried out, lost his grip on the sword and threw himself backwards to escape the embrace, but the jelly had coiled itself around his wrist. Saljin grabbed Kaslin-Ray's shoulders and pulled, but the Demon - in his true form now? - was stronger. The slippery tentacles were as tough as tarred ropes. Khiray and Pakkaht hit the being several times with their weapons, but its grip was unbreakable.
A sudden flash made Khiray jump backwards. Pakkaht was slower: the sword that suddenly shot up from the depth of the jelly-body hurt his arm. The Deer cursed even harder than before. Somehow, Hhrugha had turned the engulfed weapon in his body.
The flickering at the forest limits had become stronger. It had changed into a colorful display - and Khiray thought he could already hear Khezzarrik khi Valangassis' voice which called him sweetly and temptingly. The Fox was inclined to run, but he couldn't leave Kaslin-Ray to his fate.
The Rat screamed terribly, as if the tentacles slowly pulled his hand out of its joint. Khiray saw that the foamy secretion of the Demon boiled and bubbled on Kaslin-Ray's fur. The substance burned his fur, and probably skin and flesh as well. In his current form, Khiray had to recognize, the Demon was even more dangerous than before. How could he ever assume the creature was defeated?
He tried to saw through the tentacles with the Dekka'shin, but to no avail. The jelly grabbed at the weapon, but he could pull it away before the Demon was able to wrestle it from his grip.
"Go away from him!" Pallys shouted behind them. The fighters reacted instinctively and jumped back; only Saljin refused to let Kaslin-Ray go. Hhrugha exploded in a whirl of new tentacles, thrashing around and grabbing for everything in his reach. The smaller, severed jelly parts seemed to have joined the main mass again. In the middle of the being a bubble formed, transmuting into Chinnap's face - a decaying skull, laughing maliciously.
"Death", Hhrugha said.
Then Pallys was over him, thrusting the magic staff into the body of the monster. Hhrugha reared up. Green fire flowed from the instrument, streamed through the interior of the jellyfish and blazed in each and every one of the flailing tentacles. With one last jerk the Demon died, and the jelly ossified. Saljin let Kaslin-Ray, who had lost consciousness, slide to the ground. The Rat couldn't escape the tentacles and had suffered some more nasty hits, one of them straight across his forehead, missing the eyes only by a hair's width.
"Back to the ship!" Khiray commanded. Saljin threw the unconscious Rat over her shoulder and galloped onward. The others hesitated for a moment. Pakkaht wanted to get the sword, but he didn't dare to grab into the slowly drying mass. Sarmeen didn't know any inhibitions. He pulled both of the Demon's swords from the crumbling corpse. The remains of the jelly, now motionless and dried-up like days-old dough, fell to the ground. Only then he turned to flee.
A shattering roar behind them announced that the gate might open any moment. The Bears seemed to wait on the other side - wait for destruction, maiming, death.
The 'Silver Ansicc' was completely steamed up. Delley just waited for them to come aboard so he could cast off. The steamer gathered speed, and the Otter village stayed behind. Huge figures charged from the edge of the forest, followed by even more of Galbren's servants. Khiray wasn't sure whether they were Demons or Furrys. But they were too late. Galbren's guards had brought bows and arrows this time, but now the ship's lead was much greater than it had been in Sookandil. Only a few arrows hit the 'Silver Ansicc'; most of them dropped harmlessly into the river.
The Bears vented their rage on the Otter village. The wind carried the sounds of bursting and crashing wood far along the river. The Otters listened completely stunned to the destruction of their home. Hadn't this day promised to be quiet and calm only this morning?
Fortunately, none of the Otters stayed behind to fight against the Demons. On dry land, Otters didn't fight well. But only a few of them had saved part of their belongings; many hadn't even been able to grab what was most important to them, but escaped with their bare lives.
What did we do?, Khiray asked himself. Why do we have to suffer this new disaster?
But he didn't know any answer. The evil Galbren brought into the world had started to make circles, waves of repercussion. And if they wouldn't succeed in informing the powerful magicians who could end the disaster, those circles of doom might devour all of the Armygan in the end.