A burst of freezing air slammed into Grimluk as he made his way down the hill into the town below. The tails of his long black coat snapped out as the wind howled, threatening to blow his hat away if he failed to keep it secured. The coat was buttoned tight on his chest, keeping the plain, wool scarf wrapped around his neck in place, enough to help keep him warm while still allowing him to get to the heavy revolver on his hip if he needed it.
He passed a sign with “Welcome to Arbortown, the Greenest Town in the Valley” carved into it and was relieved to have finally arrived. The sun had set an hour before and the cold began to move in like a predator, nipping at his heels. Even Grimluk’s orcish constitution couldn’t protect him outdoors on a winter night, much to his annoyance. Every winter, he contemplated holing up somewhere warm, maybe heading back to Hunter’s Hollow and spending time with family. But every winter, new jobs continued to crop up on the bounty boards. Demons didn’t care about the cold. Or the heat, for that matter. Demons cared only for chaos and carnage, for souls and blood. Grimluk was all too happy to oblige their desire for carnage. For blood, too. And here he was, ready to oblige once more.
The little farming town was fairly out of the way. The closest other town was a few days walk back the other direction, farther west and back into New Gilead. To his knowledge, no one had claimed the bounty posted for Arbortown. That was fine. Not every demon hunter was quite as stubborn as Grimluk was about the job. Though after making the trek, he was more than ready to be done with the outdoors for a night or two. A thick tent had served him as he traveled between towns. He never minded sleeping on the ground, but the cold had a way of seeping through blankets and coats. Grimluk wanted away from the cold, if only for a bit. The tips of his ears were nearly numb, a fact that pricked at his desire to stay put and not be such a mule-headed ass.
The town itself was more of a hub than a real town. It had the usual staples: a small hotel, a saloon, peacekeepers’ office, general store, nothing out of the ordinary. Except that the peacekeepers’ office had a huge hole in the front wall. Grimluk’s throat rumbled at the sight of it. Something big clearly made that hole. He just didn’t know what it was yet. A sign hung on the untouched door that read “In saloon until further notice.”
The saloon was directly across from the office, sitting next door to the meager hotel. The batwing doors had two very heavy blankets hanging up behind them to block the cold. Grimluk pushed the blankets aside as he walked in. A gruff voice met him on the other side.
“Pray thee hold, stranger.”
Grimluk stopped, looking to the owner of the voice. There stood a thin, black–skinned elf dressed in what could be called the typical dress of peacekeepers; pants, tall boots, a work shirt and a vest with a shield badge pinned to it. Eyes like twin bonfires studied Grimluk. The elf was tall, though Grimluk still stood over him, and his coarse hair was styled square and high, adding a few inches to his height. A roomful of people watched Grimluk from various tables and spots at the bar.
He touched the brim of his hat. “Howdy,” he called before knocking a bit of snow off himself.
“What is thine business here, orc?” the elf continued, hand clearly on the butt of his gun.
Old speech, definitely not a younger elf. Grimluk took in the area as he answered, noting mostly humans and a few halflings. “Reckon I’m here to kill your demon, if that’s still a problem. Name’s Grimluk.” He held out a hand.
The elf regarded him silently for a moment, looking down at Grimluk’s outstretched hand with clear disdain. “Sheriff Shalvine,” the elf said. “Dost thou speak true?”
Grimluk sighed and lowered his hand. “That’s my aim, at least. Always possible the damned thing kills me and carries on, but if I can kill it, I’ll kill it.”
Shalvine nodded, relaxing his hand from his gun. “Wise to avoid unnecessary pride. The creature hath proved perilous in the short time it hath plagued us. Come, we will commune on the matter.”
“Lead the way, Sheriff,” Grimluk said with a nod, adjusting the elk-skin bag hanging off his shoulder.
The sheriff led him to a desk in a back corner of the main room with two chairs in front of it and one behind. The desktop was sparse and stained lightly, just enough to protect the wood. Nothing fancy, but peacekeeping–like demon hunting–wasn’t fancy work. A simple desk got the job done. Grimluk did note that his host preferred a quill and ink to the more modern fountain pens that were all too common. Not entirely unsurprising given his way of speaking. The older an elf got, the less likely they were to change their habits.
He motioned for Grimluk to have a seat before taking his own. “Forgive any perceived discourtesy to thine entrance. Strangers art not always as they seem, is it not so? And, well, thou knowest thine history, I am sure.”
Grimluk sighed quietly. Definitely an old elf. “Reckon so. About the demon?”
“Yes, yes,” Shalvine said, leaning back. “I am eager to declare this beast slain. What dost thee need to make it so?”
“Information, first and foremost. Sightings, attacks, any particular uses of magic or particularly powerful feats. Does it travel with smaller, winged demons? Huge black dogs? Have you seen anyone acting strangely? Anyone acting paranoid and secretive?”
Shalvine nodded. “A challenge easily bested. In truth, the beast hath proven more…vexing than dangerous. Even so, it slew one of our folk and harmed still more. Verily, we wouldst see thee end this fiend with haste.”
“Certainly do my best. What about the hole in your office?”
“Ah,” Shalvine said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Over-eager deputy, hunter. Inconsequential to thy matters. Pray thee patience while I consider how best to recount this tale,” Shalvine said, steepling his fingers bowing his head. “The demon manifested some months back, before the snows arrived. Always alone, to my knowledge. I have witnessed no strangeness among my neighbors, encounters with the beast aside. Truly, a mighty creature. but…”
“Yes?” Grimluk asked, brow furrowed. Shalvine looked as if he were fighting back embarrassment.
“I pray thee believe me when I say the foul beast is—” He paused. “Well, it is witless.”
“Witless?” Grimluk asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Truly a clay-brained creature if ever there was one. Never have I seen a living thing so inept in its goals.”
Grimluk blinked for a moment before frowning. “An inept demon, eh? Reckon that’s a first on my list, Sheriff. Worst I ever deal with are ghouls. Relatively speaking.” He sighed. “They’re just…so damn tedious.”
“Ghouls art demons?”
“Very weak, but yes. If you could continue, though. As many details as you can give. Or anyone you think could help. You say it’s inept, but it still killed and hurt you folks?”
The sheriff nodded. “As thou ask.”
Shalvine mostly provided information about the general nature of the incidents; how the demon would be found scratching at windows or generally lurking and being an unsettling nuisance. The one death credited to the demon happened, by all accounts, by accident. A woman named Bonnie had spotted the thing on top of the hotel.
“Dear Bonnie did endeavor to, uh, shoo the demon. Her efforts shocked the beast, rending it from the roof where it plummeted to her death.”
Grimluk didn’t really buy that the demon had fallen by accident but he nodded all the same. Shalvine then gathered a few of the other patrons up and offered to let them fill in the holes.
A pair of young, shaggy-haired human boys, not quite adults yet, told him the thing had attacked them while they’d been out walking together. Several times, it seemed. Didn’t hurt either of them, necessarily, just shoved one of them repeatedly and growled at them. Even drooled on the other boy. When the taller boy, Ike, decided he’d had enough, he’d taken a swing at the demon. Despite breaking his hand on its jaw, Ike seemed to knock the wind out of the demon. It’d roared and struck back, slicing the boy’s arm before it fled, leaping into the air and gliding away.
Grimluk just scratched his jaw at that and ordered a shot of whiskey. In all his years hunting, even as an apprentice hunter, he’d never heard such a ridiculous story. He could easily believe a demon toying with two defenseless people but, the fact that the boy had struck it and gotten away with only a sliced-up arm was peculiar to say the least.
“Did it come at you again?” he asked.
“No, sai,” Ike said. “Leastways, not so direct. Next time we really seened it, it was just trailin’ us.”
“But…” the other boy spoke up.
“Ike here found his cat strung up by her guts in his doorway not long after.”
“I see. Anything else?”
“No, sai,” they said in unison.
“Thank you both.”
After them was an old widow named Margaret, also human and owner of the general store. She had a head of gray hair, with a hawkish face and fading blue eyes that, taken all together, gave the appearance of someone with a sharp temper. All she had to say on the matter was that the demon was a “gods-damned thief,” and that it had eaten a whole bolt of gingham.
“A whole bolt of gingham?” Grimluk repeated. “I’m hearing you right, ma’am?”
“A whole damned bolt, son. Just appeared in the store, picked it up, looked dead at me, and then stuffed the whole thing down its gods-damned throat. Damned thing was likely as thick as your leg and the gods-damned demon opened up its maw and just shoved it down. May the Old Ones curse that bolt to rot.”
Grimluk took his hat off and ran a hand through shaggy hair, his winter style in place of his usual, mostly shorn head. He let out a long sigh before ordering another shot of whiskey for good measure. Shalvine introduced one of his deputies, a halfling in similar dress as Shalvine. Like Margaret, he had pale skin but a head–and feet and knuckles–of golden-blond hair. Grimluk stopped him before he could begin his story.
“If you tell me the thing shit in your dinner or kicked your dog, I’m afraid I might bust a gut from laughter. Be gentle.”
The halfling gave a crooked smile and looked up at Grimluk. “No, sai, didn’t shit on my dinner none.”
“Well, that’s good, ‘cause I was real afraid I’d die right here.”
“It serenaded my dog.”
Grimluk just looked at the deputy in shock for a moment before laughter began to rise out of him like a fire springing to life. “It did what?”
“Well, sir, I gots me a good dog, see. Bigger‘n me, but minds real good and she came into heat recently. And, well, I come out one night two weeks past, ‘cause this gods-awful racket was comin’ from behind my hole. And there it was, prolly big as you and singin’ to my dog.”
“Suppose it brought a gift, too,” Grimluk replied with a chuckle.
“A big ol’ bone, matter a fact.”
Grimluk had to swallow hard to keep from roaring with laughter. He’d seen and heard some strange things, but damn if this didn’t beat them all. “Okay, okay. I get the point.” He slipped his hat back on and paid for his whiskey. “I know you folks are kind of out of the way, and you’ve said it killed someone and hurt others, so I reckon you ain’t just wastin’ my time with some fool joke. Still hard to believe.”
The widow huffed while the deputy looked on a bit sheepishly. Shalvine sighed. “I swear to thee, hunter, we speak true. I did warn thee of the foolishness the beast hath wrought.”
“I know, but can you blame me? I’ve been all over New Gilead, wandered in and out of the Territories and the Wastes. Been at it for a decade now and I’ve never heard of a demon like this before.” He sighed and ran his tongue along his tusks. “Anything else I should know?”
“We did endeavor to slay the beast in our way,” Shalvine said with a shrug. “Success was not with us.”
“That’s what the Hunters are for. All right, I’ll take the job. Minimum fee is usually ten gluts, but let’s just call it two gluts and a room while I’m here. If this thing is as pathetic as you say, I don’t reckon I’ll be long.”
“Thou art more than accommodating, hunter,” Shalvine said with a slight bow. “We have an accord.”
“Reckon so,” Grimluk replied.
It took several days for the demon of Arbortown to appear. Grimluk spent his time playing cards in the saloon or just wandering around looking for signs of his prey. He spent more time doing that after being jolted out of bed the second night by a distant, but loud, explosion. No one reported anything demon-related to him or the sheriff, so he continued hunting and waiting. He found some old footprints in random places or near where they’d been reported to him: big, taloned prints in the snow, perfectly preserved. Grimluk figured it’d be easy to spot the thing given the townsfolks’ descriptions, especially against snow.
Outside of its size, they’d told him it was red-skinned, bright red like fresh paint, with blackened hands and feet and a long tail and wings. Of course, its hands and feet had sharp claws and its teeth were likewise predatory. Yellow eyes and horns completed the description. Nothing particularly surprising to Grimluk. It basically amounted to a giant-sized imp, one of the most common types of demons you could find. He seriously wondered if the damn thing was a giant imp, but that didn’t seem accurate. He’d seen plenty of reasonably clever imps. Devious little bastards. He hadn’t yet seen this thing, though. Not in town, out of town, or flying around above it.
When he left the hotel on the fourth morning, ready to make his rounds again, Grimluk was astounded to find his prey out and clearly visible. The damned thing was looking into one of the saloon windows. For the first time he could remember, he didn’t shoot first or react to an attack. The thing didn’t even seem to notice him. Curiosity welled up in Grimluk, urging him on. He walked quietly toward the big red creature.
The demon made no movement at the sound of Grimluk’s boots on the hotel’s porch, or maybe it just didn’t care. It stood there, tail flicking idly like a cat’s, breath flaring out in plumes that fogged up the window. Grimluk pulled his coat away from his hip, readying his revolver for a draw and cleared his throat, expecting the demon to whirl on him and attack. It still didn’t move, save to tap on the glass lightly with one clawed finger. Grimluk’s head tilted as he looked at the thing he was here to kill. The widow’s story flashed in his mind. He was beginning to see why Shalvine had made such an effort to explain things before actually explaining things.
“Little far from the Abyss, aren’t ya?” Grimluk called, his curiosity still piqued.
This time, the demon did turn to him. “Ah-beess?” it said, its voice incredibly low and gravelly. “Bashuurga escape Abyss. Bashuurga did not like it. Too noisy.”
“Reckon I should apologize in advance for sending you back then,” Grimluk said, unholstering his gun. The thing was just gonna stand there and let him kill it.
It sniffed at him for a moment and then began growling, its yellow eyes letting off a smoking glow. “Smell Bashuurga on you. You want to send Bashuurga back! Will not go back!” It roared and leaped through the awning into the air.
“Well, shit.” He dropped the heavy revolver back in its holster and shook his head. “Ain’t that just a kick in the head.” The one time Grimluk allows for curiosity and the thing escapes. He sighed, knowing he should have just shot it.
The saloon denizens spilled out of the batwing doors. The bar-man, cook, and Shalvine with a couple of his deputies looked up at the red body flying away and then over at Grimluk.
“What didst thou do?” Shalvine asked.
“Spooked it, apparently.” Grimluk walked into the street, running his tongue over his gums as he thought. “Sheriff?”
“Got an idea to fix this. A few, actually. Mind if we go in and talk? I could use some breakfast.”
Shalvine studied Grimluk for a moment before replying, “As thou wilt.”
The group went back into the saloon, parting the blankets. The bar-man, who owned the place, started to voice his anger at the awning being destroyed. Grimluk was hungry and annoyed and didn’t want to hear it, so he flicked the man a silver bilt. That seemed to settle him down in a hurry.
Grimluk joined Shalvine at the desk again. The sheriff just kind of stared at him, looking rather shocked that the demon had been so close and that Grimluk had failed to take it down right then and there. Grimluk was frustrated with himself for such an apprentice-level mistake, but the whole thing had been so strange he found it difficult to be harder on himself. Shalvine waited patiently while Grimluk ordered breakfast. Once that was taken care of, he asked the question that was filling the air.
“How didst thou fail—ah, ‘spook’ the beast?”
Grimluk shook his head and gave a little laugh. “Be real honest with you, Sheriff. Gettin’ the slip on a demon and it not tryin’ to rip my head off was a new experience. Damn thing even spoke to me. Won’t happen a second time, though.” He pointed to the teeth on his hat band. “Reckon it got a whiff of these. Demon teeth. Trophies of sorts.”
“Hunter, thine attitude vexes me.”
“Chalk it up to curiosity. As I said, though, I have a few ideas on how to handle this now that I’ve seen the beast.”
“Yes? I beg thee enlighten me.”
“First things first,” Grimluk started, “we’ll need blood. A chicken or a pig, something expendable.”
Shalvine cocked his head. “Thou meanst to summon the beast?”
“More or less. Think of it like a dinner bell.”
“I see. And then?”
A young girl brought Grimluk a plate and a mug. He slipped her a penny and took his breakfast. “Recently acquired a rather helpful tool for my profession and I reckon this is as good a time to prove it as any. But the basics of it are we put the carcass and the blood in the center of a demon trap. Demon’ll come for the blood and stay for the trap.”
Shalvine nodded. “Thou could not make use of this trap at the onset?”
“Not rightly. I wasn’t exactly expectin’ to walk out for breakfast and stumble on the thing. If the free meal doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.”
“As thou wilt. I shalt acquire thy blood.”
Grimluk nodded and ate some of his food. “Reckon if we can set this trap up for dusk we’ll have the best chance of luring it in. Might be a little more dangerous come dark, but if everything works like it should, the trap will hold tight.”
“Dusk, then,” Shalvine said flatly.
Grimluk tilted his mug toward the sheriff in a small salute. Now he just had to make sure everything was ready.
* * * *
A flame lit up the night sky above the currently occupied outhouse. The fire burned bright enough to catch the occupant’s attention while he did his business. He could see the light plainly through the little crescent hole in the door, like it was aiming straight for him. He hoisted up his breeches with a quick jerk, catching the tip of his black beard in the waist because of his hurry. The dwarf winced and cursed but shoved the door open all the same, hoping to get a proper look at the oddity streaking through the sky. It seemed to be descending rapidly and with all the force of a cannonball. And it was getting bigger.
By the time that realization dawned on him, it was too late. The flame shot right over the man’s head, making him duck in instinctual fear despite it being several feet above his head. A thunderous explosion sounded behind him, followed by a rush of wind and bits of debris that knocked him onto his face, ass pointing at the winter sky. Before he could process that, a second explosion followed the first, practically deafening him. He rolled over off his face and rubbed his nose while he lay there panting in a thinning layer of snow, breath coming out in rapid puffs.
The dwarf got to his feet a moment later and nearly jumped out of his skin when a hand grabbed his shoulder. Another dwarf, slightly shorter, but with similarly dark hair, looked at him with wide eyes, mouthing something at him. The words were hard to understand. Another dwarf joined them, beard intricately braided into a head of dirty blond hair.
Faintly, he heard his name. “Nahum!”
“Can’t hear ya, Dar!” he shouted at the other dwarf. “Shittin’ explosion fucked my ears! They’re ringin’ like someone put a dinner bell in ‘em!”
Dar nodded and pointed toward where the explosion came from.
“Don’t fuckin’ know what it was. Big ball of fire.” Nahum shook his head in a vain effort to clear his ears. That ringing was really pushing on his nerves. He grunted in frustration. “One o’ ya come with me, the other go make sure the kids is all right.”
The blond dwarf stepped forward as Dar turned around and headed back into the house. She looked at him and then toward the fireball’s impact and gulped. Nahum followed her gaze apprehensively. A cloud of hazy smoke, or maybe steam, billowed into the sky some ways away where their well had once stood. He looked at her in surprise. She mouthed something at him, a little clearer now than before but still mostly inaudible from the ringing.
“Still can’t hear ya, Maisy.” He was fairly sick of shouting. He didn’t even like shouting during harvests, but at least then it served a purpose. “Guess we should look to it, eh?”
Maisy gave a shrug but led the way. Nahum followed close behind, trying once again to solve his hearing issue, this time with a finger in one of his ears. The stones and mortar that had once been the well were scattered all around, singed, some of them still smoking. As the two dwarves followed the rubble, they came to the ruined well. The majority of it was demolished but parts of it still stood. Looked like the fireball – or whatever it was – had crashed through the canopy and ripped through the rest on impact.
Nahum let out an annoyed sigh. Bad enough his ears were ringing, but now the well needed repairing or replacing and he felt like he was freezing his stones off. No one wanted to be out in the dark of winter in nothing but their underwear and breeches. At least he had his boots on.
“You reckon we can rebuild what’s left?” he shouted.
Maisy looked it over and shrugged halfheartedly.
“My thoughts as well.”
Near the well was a smallish crater. The two of them circled around it. The warmth wrapping over the edges felt nice. Nahum contemplated sitting down in the center of it but that seemed like a possibly dangerous idea.
Maisy leaned out over the crater as she looked around through the smoke, waving her hand in an effort to push it away. Nahum walked around to join her, letting out an unconscious whistle he couldn’t quite hear.
“…rock…” he heard Maisy say. He told her so. Instead of trying to repeat herself, she slid down into the shallow crater, the tails of her coat scraping the dirt. She scooted towards the center, where most of the smoke was concentrated. She pointed down and waved the smoke away, revealing a strange-looking rock. She tapped it with the toe of her boot.
“Don’t!” Nahum shouted, afraid of what might happen.
A few moments passed, confirming that nothing had happened, so he slid down to join her. She looked at him, but he could only shrug at her.
“Damned if I know, Maze.” Thankfully, it seemed his hearing was starting to clear up some.
Maisy bent down to the rock to try and inspect it, holding a hand over it in an effort to gauge the heat rolling off it. The smoke and steam were getting wispier by the minute, probably from the cold night air. She walked over to the crater edge and gathered up a few big handfuls of snow, dumping it all onto the rock. New plumes of steam rose up in rapid flashes.
Nahum heard a dim pop, and flinched when Maisy yelped and jerked away as well. She climbed out of the crater and gathered up more snow to repeat the scenario. Nahum decided to help, and soon, the steam rose slower before stopping entirely.
Satisfied, he bent down along with Maisy as she reached out to touch the rock. He held one hand out. There was still some heat, but it was pleasant and warmed his hand. Maisy picked up the rock, bouncing it from hand to hand for a moment before settling. They carried it out of the still-smoking crater to get a better look at it.
It was mostly round, almost like a ball, with what looked like little craters of its own dotting the outside with something like a seam running through it. Nahum reached out cautiously and touched it. As much as it looked like a rock, it didn’t quite feel like one. He didn’t know how to put it into words properly, though. Maisy didn’t seem to either.
“Reckon it’s—” Nahum’s ears popped violently before he could finish his thought, making him yelp and grab Maisy’s shoulder. “Fuck me! Gods-damn it, that hurt! Fuck!”
“Are you all right?” Maisy asked, concern washing over her face. She clutched the rock to her side with one arm and reached out to stroke Nahum’s cheek.
“I guess so. Least I can hear again. Fuck me.” He worked his jaw for a moment to readjust. “As I was sayin’, you reckon maybe it’s valuable? Maybe like one of them rocks your grandpap turned into swords? What were it he called ‘em? Starblades?”
Maisy shook her head. “I don’t think so. I felt one of them rocks once and it didn’t feel like this. Felt more like a regular bit o’ rock, just with iron in it.” She held the rock back up where they could see it in the moonlight. “I don’t rightly know what this is.”
“Definitely don’t look like no iron rock, that’s for damn sure.” He touched it again, and frowned in confusion. He just could not figure this little thing out. “It feels…springy.”
Maisy turned it over in her hands, looking carefully and closely at its surface. She stopped. “Lookit.”
She pointed at part of the seam, cracked open just a touch. Just enough to be noticeable. Something dripped out and fell on one of the well stones. A moment later, the seam cracked and a strange gas spewed out into Maisy’s face. The dwarf woman shrieked and dropped the rock, which bounced off the stones and rolled away.
“Maze!” Nahum shouted. “Come on, come on, get out of this.” He did his best to pull her away from the cloud, which seemed almost to cling to her. As he tried to direct his partner away and back inside the house, he heard a loud splash and looked down. The rock, whatever it was, had rolled into the well.
When they got back inside the house, Maisy started having a coughing fit. Dar had gotten the kids back to sleep by the time they got back in and hovered over her as Nahum got her into their shared bed.
“Get her somethin’ to drink,” Nahum told his other partner rather insistently. Dar found a pitcher of tea and poured a glass, rushing it back over. Some of it sloshed over the rim, but that was a concern for later.
Gently, Dar tipped the glass back to put a little liquid down Maisy’s throat. It seemed to help. She took one big breath and sank back against the headboard. She tried to drink on her own the second time and spilled some of it down her braids.
“Feels like my chest is burnin’,” she managed to say after another coughing fit. It sounded mercifully weaker, but none too pleasant all the same.
“What happened?” Dar asked. Nahum told him about the rock and the gas. “Gods-damn. I’ll get more tea, Maisy, dear.”
For the next hour, Nahum and Dar doted on the mother of their children until she felt fine enough to get to sleep. Once Maisy curled up, the two joined her. Nahum sighed and hoped they could all get some rest. It’d been one strange night.