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Chapter 2

The demons attacked at dawn.

Nukurren was awakened by a shrill hoot of fear and alarm. With a veteran's instinct, she was instantly awake and scrambling for her weapons. She hesitated for a moment at the thought of donning her ganahide armor, but decided she didn't have time.

"Wait here!" she said to Dhowifa, who was stirring to life in his cushions.

She rushed through the hide flaps of the yurt and onto the ground beyond. There, she crouched for a moment in battle stance, fork and flail ready, to gain her bearings.

What she saw, in the faint light of the dawn, was at first more confusing that anything else.

What are those—things?

They were like nothing she had ever seen. Very tall and slender, like reeds. They moved with blinding speed, in a strange, jerky motion that she found hard to follow.

Before she could register anything else, she saw one of the demons spring toward a caravan guard. The guard was crouched, holding up her fork and flail in trembling palps, whistling with terror. In a movement faster than anything Nukurren had ever seen, the demon thrust forth some sort of huge stinger. As the stinger hurtled at the guard, Nukurren saw a brief gleam from its tip.

Metal! But what kind of metal shines gray?

The stinger plunged deeply into the camp guard's head, right between the eyes and into the brain. The guard died instantly, without a sound.

The demon planted a—a ped? wondered Nukurren; was that long and skinny thing a ped?—onto the dead guard's head and wrenched the stinger loose with its two tentacles.

Except they're not tentacles. They're like sticks tied together. And that stinger's a weapon of some kind.

That last thought restored her courage. They might be demons, but if they needed weapons they had to be vulnerable. Somehow.

She had no more time for thought. From the corner of her eye she caught a flickering motion. Then the gleam of a weapon coming straight toward her.

She was totally unprepared for a straight-thrusting weapon. No gukuy could deliver such a blow. But she instantly raised the shield protecting her palp on the crossbar of the fork, in the reflex of a fighter fending off blowpipe darts.

The weapon glanced off the shield and drove along her mantle, gashing a long but shallow wound. Nukurren ignored the pain. Her mantle was already criss-crossed with battle scars, and no mantle-wound was serious so long as the mantle itself wasn't penetrated. But she found time to regret the absence of her armor.

Nukurren whipped her flail around and struck a terrible blow on the lower portion of the demon's ped. The flail-tips did not penetrate. There was some sort of armor there. But she heard a strange cracking noise, and the demon collapsed to the ground, wailing horribly.

She drew back her flail for the death-stroke, but turned away. Her duty was elsewhere. The demon seemed incapacitated, and she was responsible for the safety of the caravan master.

She raced toward Kjakukun's yurt. On the way, she caught glimpses of the chaos around her. The guards and slavers were no longer attempting to fight. They were fleeing every which way in utter terror. But the demons which swarmed everywhere moved much faster than gukuy. Right before her, she watched as a fleeing slaver was overtaken by two demons. Pitilessly, the monsters drove their weapons into the slaver's peds, pinning it to the ground. A third demon flickered around to the front of the shrieking slaver, and drove its weapon straight into her brain.

How do they do that? wondered Nukurren. She recognized the utterly deadly nature of the blow. No part of a gukuy's body was more vulnerable than the soft spot between the eyes, behind which the brain lay unprotected. But the very nature of a gukuy's tentacles made such a direct blow impossible. The dart from a blowpipe could strike there, but very few pipers could drive a dart hard enough to penetrate through the flesh into the brain. Eyes were a piper's target.

She heard a loud hooting from the cages holding the hunnakaku.

Are the demons slaughtering the pitiful things?

But when she risked a glance, she saw that the demons were smashing the locks of the cage. They were releasing the sub-gukuy! And now she recognized that the hoots carried no trace of fear.

Just ahead of her was Kjakukun's yurt. She was almost there. She saw the caravan master step out through the hides, carrying a flail.

Get back inside, you idiot! I can't protect you out here!

It was too late. From somewhere, a demon flickered into view. It drew back the stinger in one of its strange tentacles, and then jerked it forward in a blur. Astonished, Nukurren watched the stinger fly through the air, like a gigantic dart from a blowpipe. It struck Kjakukun right between the eyes. The caravan master was dead before her body could fall.

More than anything else she had seen, in that dawn of terror and chaos, the sight of the flying stinger shocked Nukurren. Except for blowpipes, gukuy almost never used missile weapons. Some of the primitive tribes to the far southwest used slings. The Anshac had experimented with the awkward devices, before concluding they were well-nigh useless. To be sure, the stones struck with considerable impact. But gukuy could withstand a great deal in the way of blunt impacts, and no gukuy had the tentacular dexterity to use the slings with accuracy. Even the southwestern primitives used them rarely.

Despair washed over her. How can you fight such terrible creatures?

But she had no time to dwell on it. A demon was racing toward her. Knowing what to expect, she twisted to one side to avoid the brain-thrust. The stinger drove into the front of her mantle. The wound was harmless; hardly even painful. Nowhere on the mantle of a gukuy was the tissue tougher and thicker than on the edge of the cowl.

She lashed upward with her fork, striking the demon's tentacle. Again, that strange cracking sound. The demon ululated.

Full of fury and triumph, Nukurren whipped her flail around at the monster's upper torso. The blow was fast and powerful, but the demon's uncanny speed enabled it to interpose its other tentacle, which bore some kind of armor. The armor splintered. She heard another crack; the demon was hurled to the ground.

They can be broken! came the thought.

Another demon. Another. And another. Twisting like a slug, faster than she'd ever moved, Nukurren managed to avoid the death-blows. But this time the stingers penetrated through her mantle, into the flesh of her body cavity. The pain was intense. Even more intense was the knowledge of her certain doom. Such wounds invariably caused lingering death, by horrible diseases.

With no thought now but to wreak havoc, Nukurren hurled herself at her tormentors. Her fork and flail struck hard. One of the demons fell to the ground, clasping its side. Nukurren's flail had torn out a great swath of—flesh? A second demon, a huge one, was stripped of its weapon by a smashing blow of the flail on its tentacle. The third demon withdrew, moving with an odd gait, hopping on one of its bizarre peds.

A pause. She spun around, feeling agony as the stingers sticking out of her mantle flapped with her motion.

She was surrounded by demons. They were standing back, however, beyond reach of her weapons. Peculiar sounds were coming from them. Horrible sounds, full of spitting and gasping. A language, she realized, but like no language she'd ever heard. Through the haze of pain, she was finally able to discern some details of their shape, now that the demons weren't moving in a constant flicker.

Those are heads, she realized. Those strange growths on the very top of their bodies. And the sounds are coming from those moving parts in front. Are they lips? Is that tiny thing a beak? It can't be—it only has one jaw.

Then she saw the eyes. Those, at least, she had no difficulty in recognizing. They were almost like her own, except that they were so small.

Why aren't they attacking?

She moved toward one side. The demons there flickered back.

They're afraid of me, she realized. The slavers were butchered like uju. But I injured several. Some may even die.

But the tiny hope faded. She heard a demon's voice, lower-pitched than the others. Turning to face the voice, she saw two demons in the circle surrounding her flicker aside. A new demon appeared, stalking slowly through the ring.

The new demon was much bigger than the others. Taller, and wider in its upper torso. It moved slowly, for a demon, but she instantly recognized the total poise of its stance. As bizarre as the demons were in their shape and their movement, she had no doubt of what she was seeing.

A great warrior. Demonlord.

The thing began circling her. Faster and faster. She spun around. It reversed its circle. She spun again. She could feel the stingers in her body tearing at the flesh. She realized the thing was deliberately forcing her to wound herself further.

She had no chance in a prolonged battle. Suddenly, she hurtled forward, whipping her fork around at the monster's head. With triumph, she saw the demon block the blow with its stinger. She had time to marvel at the strength and—solidity—of the creature, before she brought her flail whipping around at the demon's peds in the same blow which had crippled the others.

But to her astonishment, the demon avoided the blow by—flying? No, he leapt. Straight up, lifting his peds over the whistling flails, and back down on the ground. Still perfectly poised.

She knew, then, that these were truly demons. No natural creature on the Meat of the Clam could do that.

She saw the death-stroke coming. But now she was off-balance from missing her own strike. She could not avoid the blow. She could only make a last, futile attempt to twist aside.

The stinger plunged straight into her left eye. Deep, deep, deep. Bringing an agony so great it left her paralyzed, as well as half-blind.

Dimly, she realized her last twist had avoided the brain-strike. But now she was doomed. She watched helplessly as the demon champion took a new stinger from another demon. Watched as it flickered slowly toward her, the stinger held in strike position. She was even, now, finally able to analyze the strange motion of its peds.

Like sticks, tied end to end. They don't really flicker, they jerk back and forth where the knots would be.

Suddenly her vision was occulted. A small body was swarming onto her maimed head, whistling with fear and anguish.


"Go away," she whispered. "Hide, my love. There's nothing you can do but save yourself."

But Dhowifa, normally more clever and shrewd than any truemale Nukurren had ever met, was now utterly lost in a truemale spasm of emotional frenzy. He clutched at her head, desperately trying to pull the terrible stinger from her eye.

It was a hopeless task for his puny strength. But, for some unknown reason, his arrival had caused the demonlord to pull back. The stinger in its stick-tentacle drooped. There was a rapid exchange of sounds between the demonlord and the others. Then, the demonlord advanced again, its stinger held at the ready.

It's going to kill us both, Nukurren realized with despair. Oh, Dhowifa, you fool.


A huge shape stepped between Nukurren and the demonlord.

One of the hunnakaku, she realized, even before she heard the hoot.

The concentration necessary to interpret the hunnakaku was beyond her. She was afloat in a sea of pain.

She heard hoots answered by other, strange hoots. The latter, she dimly realized, came from the demons. But she could only concentrate on one thought.

I will not die with these horrible stingers in my flesh.

Gently detaching Dwowifa, she gripped the stinger in her eye. She inhaled deeply. Then, drawing on every reserve of strength and courage, she drew the stinger forth. She whistled from the pain, but never hesitated.

She cast the stinger aside. It rolled toward a demon. The monster stared at the weapon, then at her. It did not move. None of the demons were moving, she realized. The hunnakaku was now standing to one side, silent.

She reached back and gripped the stinger protruding from the left side of her mantle. Again, she exerted her great strength. The pain this time was not as intense, but after she drew out the weapon she felt a great weakness wash over her.

She fought the weakness aside, barely. She reached back and grasped the last stinger. Again, a heave. But now her strength failed her. She could barely see out of the eye left to her. The weariness and the agony were overwhelming.

She felt a touch on her palp. Strange, eerie touch. She twisted slightly and looked back. The demonlord was next to her side, staring at her with its strange little eyes. Dawn was now fully upon them, and there was enough light to see clearly. Much of the demon's body was covered with armor, and most of the rest was cloaked in hides. And there was something very strange, she realized, about the armor on its head. But she could see uncovered stretches of the monster's skin. Black as night. Implacable.

The touch again. She realized that it was the demonlord. The monster pulled her palps from the stinger. There was something bizarre about the shape of its palps, but she was too dazed to make sense of it.

It's very strong, she thought vaguely. But I think, if I were unwounded, not as strong as I.

She was unable to resist. She let her tentacles fall. The demonlord seized the stinger and placed one of its peds on her mantle, next to the wound. A sudden jerk, the sharp pressure of its tiny ped on her body, and the stinger was out.

She lost all vision, then. And almost, but not quite, her consciousness. Around her, she could hear the mingled hoots of hunnakaku and demons. She could feel Dhowifa's warm, trembling little body clutching her head. Reason, always thinly rooted in truemales, had fled completely.

Poor Dhowifa, was her last thought before sliding into oblivion, you were so proud of your mind. Now you see what terror can do.


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