Beaten and bloodied, the Holders leave the Isle of Dusk behind. On the cusp of defeat, their only hope rests on a daring rescue attempt in the city of Eyeshorn.
Meanwhile, Suggradath leads his army closer to victory. Soon, they will come to the capitol city of Tur-Loghan. Once there, the fate of mortal-kind will be decided once and for all.
Blood will swell the rivers. Smoke will blacken the skies. Entire nations will burn...
None will be left unscathed in this thrilling conclusion to The Hands of Aldulan Trilogy....
Double Dragon Publishing
FROM CHAPTER ONE:
Suggradath bucked himself up from his battered knees with a rumbling groan. On his tremulous legs, the King of Malifess swayed back and forth as his black blood coursed down his armor-plated body.
Little by little, the fog of war dispersed around him. Soon, only incorporeal fingers of dust remained behind, stretching and reaching before breaking apart like the frail gossamer of a spider’s web.
"What have I done?" Suggradath hissed, trying to focus his bleary eyes. He found it difficult to stand upright, almost not worth the effort. Gritting his pointed teeth, he didn’t even try to stop the drool when it fell off of his chin from the exertion. It was gray-spit mixed with black demon blood.
Suggradath stood there, laughing at his own weakness…his own mortality. He spat down onto the street, watching the black blood bubbles pop one by one.
Blooming like infernal flowers up in the sky, crackling fires basked in the glory of their hellish springtide. Pushing back night’s cloak, those licking tongues of fire took the night’s feigned innocence and reveled in its darkest secrets.
That night, the crown jewel of Northwestern Termeydiun sat in the charred waste of its broken glory, asphyxiated beneath a cowl of smoke. An immolated shell of its former self, the city had been smashed, beaten, and set aflame.
The flapping of leathery demon wings echoed through the city’s scarred streets and crumbled stone bones to find Suggradath. Suggradath spun to find the source of the sound, but couldn’t. It sounded like the noise echoed at him from every side, and everything he looked at appeared the same. Blurs of black, red, and hot orange mocked his crippled body wherever he turned.
"I’m dying," the Demon King supposed. He sheathed his barbed black sword, propping himself up against a building on the smoldering edge of the Grand Plaza’s ruins. "Mortality," he hissed. "This land, this place of screams and agony," he scowled, "it’s inside of me, malignant and crippling as a plague. And the longer I stay out here-away from my home of embers and obsidian-the more I learn what it is to be a mortal.
"If demons could have nightmares," Suggradath said, spitting a pool of dark blood down onto the cobblestones beside his feet, "then this would be mine."
"Master," a wicked voice intoned, breaking Suggradath from his thoughts. The voice, a yowling, gristly, croaking thing, belonged to Yelagrim-one of Suggradath’s most trusted allies. He, along with Natasis and Vandramas, Suggradath’s two lieutenants, formed the backbone of the Demon King’s Army.
"What is it, Yelagrim?" Suggradath replied.
"What are we to do with this…mortal?"
In his pain, Suggradath had forgotten all about Brusk Weatherdown-the last of the brave men of Alhailan.
"Let me kill him. Please, sir?" Yelagrim begged, clutching Brusk. "Let me crawl down his gullet and break him from the inside out for you, Master."
"No!" the King of Malifess boomed. He coughed, retching a column of black blood up into his mouth. He let it slide out, and it drooled from his mouth like a viscous liquid vine of sour oil. "I need him alive!"
"Alive?" Yelagrim spat. "We leave none alive, Master!"
Throwing Brusk to the ground, the werelock pried the ranger’s mouth open. The plainsman could taste the dirty filth of the beast’s fingers against his tongue, and it tasted like salt, blood, and rotting death. "Please, Suggradath? I can make his death so exquisite!"
Yelagrim’s fingers became as smoke, slithering down into the vulnerable depths of Brusk’s throat. The ranger convulsed on the cracked cobblestones of the Grand Plaza, gagging as he tried to claw the amorphous fingers of the beast out of his throat to no avail. He might as well have been tearing at a wisp of fog.
"I can almost feel his heart, Master," Yelagrim said, then giggled with wicked glee. "I’ll pull it out for you, if you’d like. I’ll pull it right up through his gullet!"
"Yes, Master," Natasis urged. The blood of a werelock also flowed through his veins, although he chose a more corporeal shape most of the time-that of a horned, hoofed demon with skin as black as midnight and eyes as red as blood. "Let Yelagrim do it! Let him offer the plainsman’s heart as a gift to you and to your power!"
Suggradath jerked the Horn of Malifess to his lips and blew it. "Stop!" he shrieked. The savage horn blast echoed around the Grand Plaza like a thunderclap. A weak stone building toppled to the ground. "I need him alive!"
Yelagrim, hurled from Brusk’s body by the sound of the horn, fell to earth over twenty feet away. His hand recongealed as he hit the unforgiving cobblestones of the plaza. "I’m sorry, Master," he bleated, writhing as the sound of the horn churned like a fan of swishing blades between his ears.
"Impertinent fool!" Suggradath thundered, straightening a bit. Despite his injuries, the King of Malifess’ voice still terrified the stone beneath his feet enough to crack it. "Hear me!"
Yelagrim thrashed and slobbered on the ground, fear releasing both his bladder and his bowels. "I hear, Master!" he shrieked, stinking and spitting. "I listen!"
"Please, Master," Natasis begged. "Show Yelagrim mercy. He lives to obey you!"
"Mercy?" Suggradath scowled, whirling to face Natasis. When he spoke again, his voice was low. "Mercy would be like a chink in my armor, Natasis. Surely, you know that."
"No, Master. Yelagrim is but a humble servant in your army. He has ever been your friend and ally."
"Friend? Ally? Yelagrim?" Suggradath spat. "He knows neither of those words. They are as foreign to him as the smell of a rose or the kiss of a mortal child!"
These words brought laughter from most of the gathered demons. Yelagrim remained silent, steeping in his own filth. Natasis scowled.
"It would be a shame to lose him," Natasis said at last.
"It would be more of a shame to keep him," Suggradath replied.
"I agree, Suggradth, and I also think you’re fighting for Yelagrim’s life a bit too heartily, Natasis," Vandramas said, emerging from the smoke of the Grand Plaza. He stepped up beside Suggradath. "He has denied a direct order from our king. For that, he must be punished."
Like the other two lieutenants of Suggradath’s army, Vandramas had been born a werelock. Like Natasis, he, too, felt most at home in a chosen shape. He chose the shape of a great red dragon more often than not, and now that dragon stood protective watch over the injured King of Demons, daring Natasis to speak.
Natasis remained silent.
Suggradath looked up at Vandramas with tired eyes. "Mercy is not in me to grant," he said. "My loyal servant Vandramas knows this. Are the rest of you so quick to forget?"
"No, sir," most of the demons answered.
"Then you know, too, that I will never ask for mercy?"
"Then, my loyal minions," he thundered, "you know what you must do to show me your loyalty. Yelagrim has asked for mercy. Do the lords of Malifess offer mercy?"
"Then kill him! Show him the mercy of Malifess!"
"No!" Yelagrim cried. "You can’t! Please! No!"
Already, several dark shapes, the lieutenant’s own brothers and sisters, had fallen over him in a swarm. They tore at his cloaks, ripped at his flesh, gnashed at his bones, and listened to none of his shrieked cries for mercy.
"Stop!" Yelagrim cried from somewhere within the roiling pile. "Please, no!"
Soon after, only the sound of gargled groans slithered out of the pile. Fists covered in blood plunged in and out of the fallen werelock’s body, slurping and slathered in slime. With a sickening rhythm, the beasts pounded their brother’s corpse, the hard thumps of the first few moments soon giving way to wet, sticky slaps.
To the beasts of Malifess, it felt like delicious, brutal sex-an orgy of pain. The beasts celebrated in the carnage, their eyes winking and dancing as they satisfied their own sickening ardor.
Natasis chose not to partake in the celebration, and Vandramas watched Natasis with suspicion. With a scowl, Natasis ducked into the crowd and disappeared, mumbling curses as he left.
When they had finished, a pile of black bones and a few glistening knots of bloated entrails remained. They had eaten everything else.
Suggradath, under the watchful eye of Vandramas, limped over to Brusk and fell to his knees beside the mortal. He knelt there, in silence, trying to catch his breath. What waited just ahead would be difficult, even without the vast bounty of his injuries. He had to summon his strength.
"Why?" the ranger asked, his throat raspy and sore from the horror of the werelock’s touch. "Why won’t you just kill me?" he demanded. "You’ve already taken everything else. Why won’t you just end it?"
Suggradath wiped the sweat from the ranger’s brow. "I wish I could, plainsman. I really do. But I can’t. I still need you," the Demon King said.
"For what?" Brusk asked.
"Your body," Suggradath replied. His vision sharpened a little. For a moment, he could see the mask of confused, exhausted horror Brusk Weatherdown wore.
"You need my body?"
"Yes," Suggradath said. "I need your flesh and your blood."
"Fine. Then kill me and take it!" Brusk said. "Rip me apart if you have to. Just be done with it! I hope you choke, you son of a bitch!"
"Choke?" Suggradath cackled. "You think I need you for food? To eat you?"
"If not that, then what?"
"My body is finished. You saw to that. Now, I need a new one. Yours ought to serve me nicely."
"What? How?" Brusk asked. He tried to stand and flee. If he could find a sword, a knife, a broken arrow, he could end it all.
Suggradath held him down. His burdensome weight did most of the work. "No escape, Ranger," he whispered, "for either of us."
The Demon King bent toward the mortal, spreading his bloody black lips. Brusk squirmed to no avail. Both of Suggradath’s powerful hands held him still.
"Stop," Brusk begged. Suggradath’s lips glistened less than an inch away from his own.
"I can’t," the demon said.
He kissed the mortal named Brusk Weatherdown, last of the Kaltaken Rangers alive within Alhailan’s walls, and in that kiss, he breathed the very wickedness of his eternal soul into the human’s body. As his demonic body died, and he took his first breaths from inside of his new human shell, he passed the Horn of Malifess from his former self to what had been Brusk mere seconds before.
For a moment, Suggradath sat and stroked his dead-self’s bloodied cheek, shedding one solitary tear from his new mortal eyes. Then he stood on his new legs, holding the Horn of Malifess high above him.
"The fall of mortalkind!" he screamed.
"The fall of mortalkind!" Vandramas cried in answer. Soon, all of Malifess’ army took up the chant, roaring at the heavens.
The ranger’s body, to Suggradath’s delight, felt strong…far stronger than he had imagined it would be. "It feels so young." The Demon King smiled. "So new." He considered his hands-the flesh, the bone, the muscle. They felt so eager to do his bidding. So tight, so powerful, so enveloping, like a pair of fresh leather gloves stretching over the old skin of his former body. Maybe there is something to this mortal plain, he thought. Perhaps their strength is drawn from the temporary nature of their existence. Maybe they are stronger at heart than we are, without the immortal lash that tethers us to the languishing experiences of eternity.
He dismissed these thoughts as he looked out at his awaiting army. They wanted words, and words he could give them. Banishing the unMalifessian thoughts of the preceding moments, the Demon King cleared his new mortal throat, preparing to address his troops for the first time with his new voice. "You stand before me," he said, "at the precipice of this world’s defeat, like a river of black blood caught behind the thin veil of mortality’s dam. Now is the time to dash through that dam, wash it away, drown it into the nothingness from which it sprung!" he roared, marching through the ranks of his soldiers, leaving his old body behind in a flaccid pile of dead demon flesh. "Like a sword of one thousand edges, your blade sits poised on the back of the soft neck of the mortal world! Will you cut it off with me, my brothers and sisters? Will you come with me and finish what we’ve begun?"
His army barked its answer, all of his soldiers screaming but Natasis, the sound of their voices shaking the smoking ruins around them. Broken masonry tumbled down into the desecrated streets, shaken loose by the timbre of their foul, baleful cries. "We will follow you!" they bellowed. "All hail Suggradath, our god! Our lord! The Maker bears witness to the fall of all of mortalkind!"
"Then the mortal races of Arioc will bleed," Suggradath screamed, his demon’s eyes shining from the depths of Brusk Weatherdown’s head, "and I will perch on a throne of mortal bones and drape myself in a mantle of dead mortal flesh!"
As ever, his army thundered and stamped, reverence filling their voices as the sounds of their cries soared up into the crisp night.
It would take Suggradath months to recover, but his army would wait. After all, they could not deny him anything. He still held the Horn of Malifess, the mantle of his hellish rule, and if they disobeyed, they would perish.