It was slow to awaken at first, for It was alone, a circumstance wholly outside of Its experience. For a long time It simply waited, an invisible presence in a clearing that animals began to avoid. They had no apparent reason to do so, but some deep instinct told them that it was a dangerous place. A very wise choice, all things being considered. Perhaps it was months or years that It did nothing, perhaps only days. Such distinctions of time meant nothing to It. But after some time, It began to extend Its perceptions.
The animals It sensed first, but their small minds were useless for Its purposes. So it continued searching. It had expected this hunt to be a failure, as so many of the others had been. The presence of animals, however, was a hopeful sign, and It continued searching. Trees It felt, and stones, and other small minds. But not yet a sign of Its goal. Eventually, It determined that the hunt was fruitless, and prepared to return. It nearly did so, but for a chance twist of Fate. And so, by the narrowest margin of luck, It found a Man.
* * * *
His name was Daneel, and he had hunted in the forest all his life. So had his father before him, and his father's father before him. It was more dangerous now, the forest. It had not entirely escaped the dark tide that enveloped the world. Demons prowled there now, and goblins, and other creatures far worse. But a skilled hunter was still able to make a living there.
Only today he had found no game. His traps had all been empty, and he had so far seen no animal larger than a squirrel. After a day spent waiting in vain, he was prepared to return emptyhanded to his small cabin. He was turning to hike back, in fact, when he saw it: through the trees, a flash of white. He froze, and made out a sight that was glorious to him. It was a large deer, a fourteen-point buck. And it made no sign that it sensed his presence. He took his bow out, nocked an arrow, and brought it up to take aim. He must have made some small noise in doing so, for the deer suddenly bolted. Daneel had no intention of allowing his dinner to escape him. He took off running after the deer.
It was a long chase. Several times he felt sure that he had lost it, but then he would see it up ahead, bounding through the trees, almost daring him to catch it. Eventually, he did. He burst out of the bushes into a small clearing, only to see the deer standing there. It stared off into the woods, and though it quivered, it did not run. Daneel nocked another arrow, took aim, and fired. The arrow took the deer through the throat, and it fell to the ground, trembled, and was still. He drew his knife, and walked out to the fallen deer.
Midway through the clearing, the hair on the back of his neck rose. He stopped and looked around. His instincts, honed over long years, told him to turn and run, to leave this place as soon as possible. Yet he saw nothing, heard nothing. As far as he could tell, there was not another creature for miles around. So he continued walking to the body of the deer, to begin preparing its carcass.
He had no sooner reached it when he began feeling tired. A weariness that went straight to the bone. His eyes began to shut against his will. He knew that it was not time to sleep, that he had a long way to travel to return home. But his weary mind rationalized the decision, saying that he could take a short rest and return home later. After all, there were no other creatures for miles, so what could possibly harm him during his sleep? Finally he lay down, more of a simple collapse than anything else. He lay his head against the deer's corpse and closed his eyes, and reality drifted away.
He was hardly asleep before the dreams began. Horrible dreams, dreams of cutting and burning and pain. He screamed and screamed until his throat was raw, but he was unable to wake himself up.
* * * *
It felt the energy of the Man surging through It, and It was pleased. Or at least, as close to pleasure as one of Its kind could come. It knew now that there were Men here, and Demons, and Goblins, and other useful minds. And It called across the Void to Its origin, called the pleasure of a successful hunt.
Time passed as It waited, but It took no notice. Trees grew, and shed their leaves. The corpses in the clearing decayed. And finally there was an answer, and Others came to join It. Together They stalked the forest, in search of minds to take. After some months of searching, they came across what They sought: a large group of minds. They drew together and conferred on how to approach.
:::Let us simply take them::: was the response of the first. It did not actually speak the words. Speech was something alien to It. It just knew its aims, and caused the Others to know them as well.
:::There are too many::: said the second. :::We cannot take so many into the dark at once:::
The third had focused Its senses on the group while the Others argued. :::That Man there::: It said, :::The female near the front. Does it sense us?:::
:::Possibly::: said the first. :::All the more reason to strike now:::
:::Wait::: said the second. :::Feel the resonances here:::
:::We have::: said the first. :::There are minds. Men and Demons and Deadmen and a Dragon:::
:::No::: said the second. :::Feel the specific resonances:::
There was a pause as They did so. They perceived the minds before Them in a way mortals could not comprehend. Few other entities can stand to see reality from the outside.
:::Yes::: said the third. :::The patterns match. These may be the ones we seek:::
:::But::: said the first, :::If these are the ones, then the large group of Demons cannot be with them. Will they not be destroyed?:::
:::We do not know::: said the second. :::Let us watch and see:::
* * * *
"Look" said Intruder. We've been walking all day. Shouldn't we at least stop and make camp for the night?"
"I'm getting sick of your whining!" yelled Scarlet from the front of the party. "We'd never get anywhere if we stopped every time you felt like it!"
"He might be right," said Atlas. "I don't think all the exertion can be very good for Celes and Xeiss, after what they've been through. Celes, do you think we should stop?"
Celes looked around at the dark trees and shivered. "No, I don't think we should stop here. There's something about this part of the woods that makes me nervous. It's like we're being watched."
"I have to agree with her," said Xeiss. "There's something very wrong about this part of the forest."
There then came a cry from up ahead, and a brief scuffle.
"What was that?" called Atlas, his axes already to hand.
"Nothing," called back Scarlet. "I just tripped over something."
"You know, we told you to carry a torch if you're taking the lead! Or at least walk next to Glitterspike," Intruder said.
Scarlet growled to herself, and reminded herself sharply that it would not be the best idea to kill the human at this particular time. Besides, dragons were patient. She could wait. She looked down to see what she had fallen over. It should have been impossible to do so: her eyesight was far better than human in this light. But even knowing an obstacle was there, she had trouble focusing on it. "Bring some torches up here!" she called. "I think I may have found something."
Soon the entire party had gathered around the obstacle. It was a strange sight, two skeletons lying together on the forest floor. One was that of a deer, and the other of a man. There was something strange about the man's skeleton, though. The eye tended to slide away from it. No one was slow to notice that all the grass near the bones had died.
"Something has happened here," said Glitterspike. "Something has touched upon the land here. Are the Brothers stirring in their prisons? Could one of them have reached this man here?"
"I don't know," said Celes. "Somehow this doesn't feel like the work of a demon."
"There is one way we could find out for sure," said Scarlet. "We could ask the man."
"But he's dead!" replied Atlas.
"Yes, well we do have a necromancer with us, do we not?" asked Scarlet. "Well, Intruder?"
"Oh, all right. Fine," said Intruder. He walked up to the skeleton and took several implements out of his robe.
"This is wrong, and I will have no part of it," said Glitterspike. He turned and walked into the trees.
There was relative silence for a moment as Intruder prepared his rituals. He raised his hands into the air and began to chant.... then stopped.
"Something wrong?" asked Scarlet.
"There's nothing here," said Intruder, looking somewhat confused.
"What do you mean, nothing?" asked Atlas. "There's a pile of bones sitting right in front of you!"
"I know that!" whined Intruder. "I can see them! But according to my magic, this skeleton does not exist."
Scarlet smiled inwardly, for this confirmed her suspicion.
"What could cause such a thing?" asked Shin.
"Well, there is one thing I can think of..." began Celes.
Scarlet looked at her sharply. "No," she said, "I don't think you know what caused it. Nothing could possibly have caused it."
"Let her speak," said Atlas. "Well, Celes?"
Celes looked thoughtful for a moment, then spoke. "No, Scarlet's right. I don't know what could have caused this."
Scarlet grinned again. She knew what could have caused this, though not how it was accomplished. She considered for a moment keeping the secret to herself, then decided it would probably be best to inform Abadon. Knowledge was fine, after all, but gold was so much better. Now there remained only the matter of getting the message to him.
As it turned out, fate would provide.
"To arms!" came the cry from the woods. The party whirled to see Glitterspike charging into the clearing, weapons drawn. "To arms!" he cried again, "Demons!"
Indeed, he was correct. The first of the demons entered the clearing only a few feet behind Glitterspike. Others were not far behind.
The first demon was spitted on Triesque's horn. Triesque himself then fell to the ground in pain. Another demon reared over him, then was thrown aside as a swing from Atlas broke its body apart. A third took advantage of the opportunity to rake its claws across Atlas's back, but it in turn fell to Mercy's swift blade. A fourth and fifth fell to Glitterspike, their heads lopped off by wide swings of his halberd.
Scarlet summoned her energies in preparation for a spell. These were only minor demons, but they must at some level serve Abadon. They would therefore serve as her couriers. She focused on each of the remaining demons in turn as she prepared her spell. Then she released it, and the demons were still for a moment as her commands burned into their minds. Then, without another sound, they turned and fled into the forest.
Glitterspike was prepared to follow them, but Shin held him back. "Let them go," he said. "We're too worn-out to go after them now. Atlas! Let's take a look at those cuts there."
"Well," said Ethon, "at least now we know why we found this clearing."
"It just seems strange," said Glitterspike. "Seems like far too much trouble for a simple ambush."
* * * *
:::See?::: said the first one. :::They may be the ones we seek:::
:::Yes::: said the second. :::They may be the weapon we need. This requires far more than our simple presence here. We will require a physical agent:::
:::Correct::: said the third. :::The Blood Fury would be appropriate. It is fitting to the paradigm here:::
:::Agreed::: said the first. :::Then remains only the task of finding a proper anchor here. Something of flesh and blood:::
:::That is readily available::: said the third. It indicated a direction leading away from the clearing. :::There:::
* * * *
It was some hours after the confrontation in the clearing. The demon ran still, driven by some greater force. Its mind was not great, but it could comprehend that the attack had been a mistake. The humans had fought well, far better than expected. And there was also She who now commanded it, She of the burning eyes. It ran now through the forest, her words burning through its mind.
And then it stopped. A chill came over it, cooling even the burning magic in its skull. It found that it could not move. And it sensed something coming. Something as to make even a demon tremble in fear.
A chill thought ran through its mind, a thought from some outside source: :::Do you fear us, little Demon? How amusing:::
Another one then, in a slightly different tone: :::You should be honored. You have been chosen for something that no other being in existence has:::
And then one more: :::It is almost unfortunate for you that your mind will not survive:::
The demon felt a deep chill then, building in its chest. Then a sudden flash of pain. It looked at its arm, where a large glimmering spike had thrust itself through the skin. Then another, as something burst out of its chest. The demon felt its body tearing itself apart from the inside, and engaged in the only free action left to it. It screamed.
What few animals that remained nearby fled, for the screams of demons are horrible things. They went on for a long, long time.
After some time, what had been the demon stood up. It was far larger, far stranger than what it had been before. The trees were dimly lit by eyes burning red and blue-white.
:::Now::: They said :::Awaken, Blood Fury. The hunt begins:::
And behind those burning eyes, a hole was drilled through space. The trees rippled and swayed as reality itself cried out in pain, a warning to those who could sense such things.
* * * *
Atlas looked over as Celes gasped, and fell to her knees. He rushed over to help her up. "What is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," said Celes. "But something is wrong. Something is very wrong."
From far off a cry, as of a wolf, echoed through the woods.