One Last Scar
An epic fantasy showdown between two lovers, cruelly torn apart. A Hunter must face his Demon, as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. - Adapted from The Hunter's Gambit: Book One of the Archanium Codex.
“Are you absolutely sure you’re up to this?”
Richter sat in a tight crouch, staring blankly ahead, his golden eyes focusing on nothing and everything at once.
This was the room.
A white room filled with black memories. Once again, he was in the center of the Voralla, the tapestry of the Archanium brushing against the rough golden hairs of his beard.
The Magus standing above him tapped her foot. Richter ignored her. He might address her question soon enough, but he wouldn’t be rushed into something this important. Not after all they’d suffered. All he’d suffered. After everything Cassian had done to his people.
Elise’s presence above him grew increasingly oppressive, and in deliberate defiance, he recalled the memories he’d failed to bury one last time. Watching Cassian decay, standing helpless as the man he loved slowly crumbled before him. And Richter had witnessed its genesis.
He had to acknowledge that much to himself now.
But Richter always had a solution. Always a salve or spell, anything to push back the poison. They’d all paid dearly for his hubris.
It had been years before the Order began to question him; years for Cassian’s behavior to slowly, insidiously become ever more erratic, for his twisting judgement to lead them to great victories, but only ever at greater cost. And yet, ever the clever Hunter, Richter had explained away every misdirection, every misdeed.
Each new perversion.
Now, bereft of tricks or tales to spin, he was here, at the very place he and Cassian first let in the bane. Here, under the solemn shadow of countless lives lost, the world they had both fought for rotting at his feet. Like Cassian, cracking and flaking away into tatters until all that remained was cancerous corruption gnawing at the scraps.
Cassian had let the Demonic Presence into this world, into his soul. And yet, as Richter had admitted far too late, it had twisted their love to pierce his own heart just as keenly.
He had offered to bear the full weight of responsibility. To pay for his offenses with the only thing of worth he still possessed. To atone for all he and Cassian had done. Their intentions had been pure, but that mattered little in the aftermath.
Elise knelt beside him, laying her arm across his shoulders. The Mantle lifted from his skin, its talons caressing her delicate wrist. “Richter, darling,” she said in that voice that always recalled his mother, “we have to begin. Your children are growing restless, and he could Fade at any moment. We can’t lose him, Richter.”
He came to his feet in a liquid motion, offering her a hand. She hesitantly accepted it, her gray eyes studying him. He smelled uncertainty; fear.
Richter turned to the sprawling mass of creatures. Many stood stiff and stoic, though some twitched in the torment of displacement, that caustic conflict pitting their innate desire for the shade of the Seil Wood against their deep and determined obedience.
Obedience to Richter. Obedience to the Hunter.
The sight of them threatened to tug a sad smile from his stony facade. His children, Elise had called them.
His happiness withered. The spirits of his Wood were here for him. And in return, he was consigning them to the fate he alone had earned.
But there was no other way.
Cassian was close enough for the plan to work. As much as he pushed the idea from his head, it still hurt that Richter’s presence alone wasn’t enough to draw Cassian out. But his Cassian was gone. He had to be.
“He won’t leave,” Richter said, more confident than he felt. “He’ll be intrigued by the crumbs I laid out. He’ll be hungry for something more substantial.”
“It will work, Richter. We’ve worked out every parameter, every axis, every bloody Song.”
Richter recalled hearing a similar sentiment years, a lifetime ago. A brand burned against his heart with each flash of memory.
He growled, buffeted by the ramifications this would have for him; for his world.
For whatever was left of Cassian.
Richter placed a hand on Elise’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “I’m ready.” It was a lie, but perhaps it comforted her. “Just make sure your flying rats are prepared.”
She pursed her lips, “The angels are awaiting my signal. Once Cassian enters the chamber, it will be over.” She rested her fingers over his own, “Your will debt be paid.”
Richter grunted, dropping his hand and turning back to his little demons. “We both know the truth of that.” He reached into the Archanium, beyond any region he’d accessed in the past, into a region of pure magical creativity. Into the last realm Cassian had touched before they’d released the Presence.
Feeling him embrace the Archanium, Elise retreated from the room, shutting the heavy oak door behind her. He allowed himself a sardonic smile. Doors would protect no one, not from what was coming. Nothing would protect them, whatever Elise and her angels claimed.
Still, this had to happen. This moment, this final meeting. It was his debt, and one he embraced. He would atone. He would look into Cassian’s eyes one last time. He would verify with every remaining shred of his humanity that Cassian was wholly gone from this world.
Thus, one last charge into the van; one last chance to say good-bye.
The spellform snapped into existence, and Richter straightened with the strength it afforded him.
The watchfire was lit.
If they wanted the Demon to sniff him out, he would draw a blood meridian across the Great Sphere that could not be ignored.
Plunging ever deeper into the Archanium, Richter wrapped the key elements of his spellform around his children.
The spell hooked into each of them, into the very demonic nature of each being. So different from the demon Cassian had unleashed, but just similar enough.
Across his back, the Mantle swarmed, drawn towards the net he cast, but Richter chained it to himself with promises of feasts to come.
He completed the final axis connections, binding his demons inescapably. The spellform warped, taking on the twilight colors of the Aftershadow.
Richter pulled in a breath before summoning a swirl that was all too elementary. It was a spell they taught children just reaching for the Sphere, and it was the spell that would make his trap irresistible to the Demon.
The thread warped and whorled around his construct, its darkness gaining new depth, sinking into a pitch black that rivaled the Mantle’s hypnotizing, inky darkness.
From the roiling gloom erupted piercing sheets of green light. A vibration built in the center of his chest as he directed a child’s illusion spell around the core of his construct, altering its scent, its ripples across the surface of the Great Sphere.
The Demon was clever, though lacking any of Cassian’s artful subtlety. It was hunting for something to rival its ability, its connection to this world through Cassian’s corpse. But that connection could be contained, perhaps even severed. Not by Richter, and certainly not with the combined essence of his demonic children, but by summoning something that didn’t even properly exist.
At least, not yet.
The Voralla convulsed. Richter readied himself, knowing there was no way to truly prepare for what he was about to face. He poured more of himself into the construct, feeling its binding split under the vast energy he was attempting to contain.
It was a fool’s errand.
A shadow took shape across the room, the air shimmering. Richter gave everything to the whorl of light before him. He was so close. Richter could smell him, the stink of rotten flesh, the putrescence of the Demonic Presence forcing itself into his world.
The shape refined into a Demon. Into what had once been a man. Into Cassian.
The voice shook the Voralla.
Not Cassian’s soft treble, but the harsh throb of the Presence. Each step Cassian took vibrated painfully in Richter’s chest. He gripped the Archanium, wrapping the final threads around his construct.
We want it, Richter. Give in to Us, Richter.
The Demon reached him and thrust its hand into the core of Richter’s spell, the full force of its power pouring corruption into the magic Richter had summoned, its claws grasping for him.
Just before the Demon had him, Richter cut his connection to the Archanium, rolling to the side as the construct exploded, catching Cassian in its center.
Richter was on his feet the next moment, rushing the stunned Demon. He passed the remains of his construct, a small bubble of shadow binding his children, and shielding them from what he was about to unleash.
Cassian was rising from the floor, but it no longer mattered. Richter was close enough. He would be satisfied.
The Demon regained his feet the moment Richter’s hand caught him. The Mantle exploded from his wrist, diving into the Demon and pulling, drinking life. Humanity.
The Mantle whipped away, green light skittering across the black, slithering into Richter’s flesh and searing every nerve in his body. He dropped to his knees, the Mantle writhing around him, flailing without focus before retreating up his nerveless fingers.
And then Cassian stood over him, staring down with those soft brown eyes. “Richter.”
It was Cassian’s voice. Tears welled up, even as he battled them back. It was an illusion. He had his answer.
“We want it, Richter.”
Something tore inside him. Cassian’s hand brushed his shoulder, and with that touch came indescribable pain. He knew his life was over, but he never broke from Cassian’s brown-eyed gaze.
Richter’s muscles gave out, and he collapsed to his side, the burning, burrowing pain intensifying as the edges of his vision clouded with a sickly, sulfurous fog.
The door burst apart. He heard screams, some even mustered the Archanium before their howls terminated sharply. Then he lay in a world devoid of noise, excepting the Demon’s inescapable droning.
The world jolted, and Richter realized he was hearing a new scream. One he had not heard in so very long.
Blue-white light battled the chartreuse miasma for command of his sight. Somehow, the intense cold of the light burned keener than Cassian’s touch.
Something crashed to the ground, inches from his face, and something soft came to rest against his cheek. He blinked. It was suddenly important that he know what had fallen against him.
His vision, what wasn’t lost to the yellow-green fog, came into rough focus.
Cassian lay a handspan away, his eyes fixed on Richter. The same soft brown, despite the desiccated flesh of his face. His hand brokenly extended, fingers long-since rotten gently grasping at Richter’s cheek.
The light built around them, the air regaining the same searing cold, a counter to the Demon’s fire that threatened to overtake him at any moment. Cold that burned deep enough to remind him that he was still alive, if only for just a moment longer.
“Richter,” Cassian’s voice rattled as a piercing wail filled the air, nearly banishing the name from Cassian’s lips.
A tear finally slipped free, burning its way down Richter’s face. He could smell his flesh sear as it dragged across his cheek, before finally dripping from the edge of his jaw. One last scar; one he would never begrudge.
His heart seized in his chest, a staggered beat, but Richter never broke from Cassian’s gaze. Demon fire be damned, this would be the last thing he saw, that voice whispering his name the last thing he heard.
The wail suddenly became a song. A beautiful, aching aria of healing. Peace. Even in death.
Cassian’s fingers brushed his bearded cheek one last time. Those beautiful brown eyes blinked. Cassian fought to open his mouth as the light became blinding, as the yellow-green fog blighted Cassian from his sight forever.
Just before fog and fire consumed him entirely, he heard Cassian’s final whisper.
“We want to feed.”
About the author
Nicholas McIntire has been writing fantasy his entire life. His debut novel, The Hunter's Gambit (Book 1 of the Archanium Codex) was released in 2019 to critical acclaim, and Book 2, A Wicked Wind, is coming September 20, 2021!