Ch. 314. Hands Down

The beasts attacking Raurugia Rail Lines Train No. 47 and the bandits that had derailed it looked like some third-rate theater troupe’s low-budget approximation of wyverns. They had the requisite parts – the whip-like tail, the short, leathery wings, the heavily armored heads with the deadly, snapping jaws. But looming up in the stark torchlight around the wrecked train, they looked for all the world as if those wyvernly parts were held together with scrap wood, old cogs, and rope. The blood glistening on their dagger-like teeth was real enough, though.

“Are they puppets?” cried a nearby bandit.

“Of a kind,” said Ruili, for he had such cobbled-up demons before, “but their strings are pulled by a darker magic than any you know.”

Ruili could see at least four of the beasts corralled by a hastily organized defense force composed of train guards, some war-trained persons among the passengers, and even a few bandits, but he knew they would only make so much headway. These were not natural monsters, and they would not be driven off by any show of force but one. He knew this from experience, and if he had doubted it, the throbbing of the card inside his jacket confirmed his belief.

He took the card out. It tensed and pulsed in his hand like a living thing. “Lead me, then, demon,” he growled at it, “Lead me to the source of this trouble, so to put an end to it.”

The impulse felt like a terrible itch, satisfied only by moving in the direction his nerves twitched. This was the demon trapped in the card, the monster called the Dragoness, which had caused such mayhem in the city of Plesz, straining to get at its prey, the demonic wyverns.

Strange that the creatures of the Daemon Arcana seemed to hate each other so much, but perhaps really not so strange. The deck had been made for playing games, after all, and the cards might be banded together or turned against each other at the whim and opportunity of the players who controlled them. Bit of an allegory there, Ruili thought as he sheathed his sword and abandoned the immediate battle to follow the urging of the card. It was the conceit of the alien, magical game that the cards were locked in perpetual war with each other, constantly pulled this way and that by changing loyalties, always seeking to be the one laid down as the winning trump.

It was that trump that Ruili hoped to score now. He had no way to know how well equipped his opponent would prove to be — whether another random assassin like the one in Plesz or a true player holding a full hand against Ruili’s single card — but the Selkie lord had an “ace in the hole,” as it were, which he trusted would give him the victory.

The roaring of the wyverns and the shouts of those fighting them made the situation seem chaotic, but in fact, few people were still in the area. All of the non-fighting passengers had run off by now, either to safe havens or into more bandit-oriented trouble. So after a relatively short run along side the train, Ruili found his quarry and had occasion to be grateful for mortal frailty.

The black-clad sorcerer was standing proudly atop a train carriage, watching his summoned pets slapping defenders about. In the torch-light, and faintly silhouetted against the graying sky, he was only a dark form, but he was probably smiling, perhaps even laughing — when what he should have been doing was hightailing for the town, like the other innocent parties.

“I say, there!” Ruili called out, “Mind if I join?”

He barely got the hail out of his mouth before the wizard, with a stricken look, bolted and vanished down the far side of the car. Typical villain, Ruili growled to himself, racing around the car to see the wizard sprinting for the trees. The Selkie picked up a piece of debris and hurled it after him, catching the back of his legs. Thus, a meeting was arranged.

“Now, then, sir, shall we try that again?”

“Curse you for a fool,” the wizard retorted, scrambling to his feet as Ruili approached. The fall had dislodged the scarf with which he had masked his face. Ruili saw a dark-haired man with a eormanish cast to his features, glaring at him with a fire of hate in his black eyes. “You have sold your soul along with your life.”

“Have I now? Shall we lay odds on it?” Ruili raised his card, its face hidden.

“Where did you get that?”

“Ha! Where did you get yours?”

Rather than answer, the wizard, snarling the summoning spell, threw down the card in his hand, which was just what Ruili had hoped he would do.

The energy of the Six of Blood reverberated through the pre-dawn gloom. The beasts the card commanded turned from attacking the fighters and drew in upon Ruili as their new target.

The wizard was already reaching into his bag for the rest of his cards, no doubt. Ruili smiled at him. He touched his card, the Queen of Blood, to the bleeding cut on his shoulder, where the last of the bandits had hit him before dying. The cursed paperboard sucked up the blood hungrily, like a viper latching onto his flesh and his life force with bite of searing pain. Promises of vengeance and power, visions of bloody destruction and foes cowering before him, flooded into Ruili’s mind — but he had heard such promises before. The love of these demons was a tainted one, and he already knew the cost of rejecting it. A price he’d willingly pay. Not bothering with Atul words unnecessary for this game, he threw down his card over the wizard’s.

“Queen beats the six, sir. This round is mine.”

The wizard’s eyes widened with surprise, perhaps even panic, as the cold dawn was torn with the bone shattering shriek of the Dragoness. The fear-bringing demon made short work of the wyverns. Her triple scorpion tales dashed their haphazard bodies to bits. She made short work, too, of the fighters and bandits, as this new burst of alien hellishness sent those brave warriors scattering in terror.

For a brief moment, both Ruili and the wizard in black paused, listening to and feeling the moment. Then the wizard pulled another card, and Ruili pulled his “ace” — the sword from the scabbard on his back.

The shining blade began to glow with a sapphire light as it touched the evil aura in the air. It drew the darkness in, consuming all around it, pulling in the power of the demons themselves.

The wizard fell back, shielding his eyes from the light. “What blade is that?”

“You thought you had one over your own kind, did you not, unseelie scum,” said Ruili. “Thought you had a weapon none in this world could match.  You failed to reckon the chance that the cards were not the only magic to come here by way of a vortex. This sword is Atasen, made to break these very spells, and it shall break you with them.”

With that, he thrust the point of the sword down onto the cards, the Queen and the Six. Aura exploded as the dark flow was broken. The air shattered with the screams of demons in pain and rage, and a blinding flash of energy that blew out and was quickly sucked back into the quivering, singing blade.

For a moment then, nothing happened. The world itself seemed stopped in shock. But soon enough, a wind puffed through, and the sound of Ruili’s own breathing came to his ears as the shockwave of broken aura faded. The wizard was gone, fled into the forest, probably before Ruili had even struck the game-ending blow.

Ruili plucked the cards off the tip of his sword. They were dormant only, not dead, not exorcised. He knew from experience that breaking the summoning merely sent the demons back into their cards. As far as anyone knew to date, nothing would kill them.

“You are more durable than your makers,” he said to them as he wrapped them in the Cloth of Field Dampening, “and thus, more bother.”

Now it was truly dawn. A relatively short time had passed, only a couple of hours since the derailment of Train No. 47. The horns of the local garrison riding to the rescue could be heard approaching. Ruili, ignoring his own minor hurts, headed back to where he had left Y’lanna hiding.

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