Another night in the open. No trees, so we sleep in a field littered with rocks.
It's been a day of disappointment on the magic front. Drust stopped hitting me but that's all that changed. I can't get the hang of this new magic. It's too different. I wish Drust would focus on natural magic and help me improve that way. I learnt a lot from Banba but my powers have grown rusty. I think we should work on the type of magic I grew up with.
But Drust is firm. He says he can't teach me the way a priestess could, since he doesn't work that way. And even if he could, he wouldn't.
"You're no good to me the way you were!" he snaps when I question the need to learn new spells. "I need more!"
But what for? Why does he need me? What's he grooming me to do?
Sleeping deeply. Dreaming of happier days-Banba alive, no demons, safe. Enjoying the dream, but midway through an inner voice whispers, "Wake up." Connla's been guarding us for the last few hours. Now it's my turn to go on watch.
I'm excellent at waking myself. I never need to be called. It was one of the first spells Banba taught me. A priestess has to be able to control her dreams. Otherwise she can cause chaos while asleep.
I'm lying on my back, next to Orna, cloak drawn across my body and over my head. I turn slightly, careful not to break Drust's masking spell. I look across to where Connla is. And see a demon.
For a second I think I'm still dreaming, because the demon doesn't appear to be attacking Connla. It's crouched beside him, bent over, head close to his, as though talking. And when I prick my ears I can hear it whispering.
A drop of rain hits me square between the eyes. I blink-then snap out of my stupor. Leaping to my feet, I roar at the top of my voice, "Demons!"
Everyone comes alive in an instant, on their feet, weapons in hands. Ronan notches an arrow to his bow, takes aim and... stops as the demon turns to look at him. I see Ronan's fingers quiver, his face twitch, his eyes narrow. He wants to unleash the arrow but he can't. The demon's controlling him.
Lorcan attacks, sword and axe a blur, screaming a challenge. The demon points with a lumpy, pale red hand. And Lorcan stops too, not frozen in place exactly, but hovering beyond striking distance of the demon, unable to advance.
Goll and Orna are about to leap forward when Drust shouts, "No! Leave him!"
The druid is sitting up. His hands are joined. His lips are moving quickly, gaze fixed on the demon. He looks more purposeful than frightened.
Nobody moves. All eyes are pinned on the demon and the druid. Now that my sight has adjusted and there's time to observe, I get a clear view of the monster. It's tall, with eight arms, roughly shaped hands, dangling strips of flesh instead of legs and feet. Hovering in the air, not touching the ground. Pale red skin, flecked with blood. At first I think it's Connla's blood-I'm sure he's dead- but then I notice scores of cracks in the demon's skin, from which blood oozes, giving the lumpy flesh its unhealthy crimson tinge. No hair. Its eyes are dark red, with a black circle at the centre of each globe. No nose, just two gaping cavities in the middle of its face. No heart either-just a hole in its chest filled with eel-like creatures, which slither over and under one another, hissing and spitting.
The demon cocks its head and smiles sadly at Drust. "You are powerful, druid. The girl too, if she could only learn what you teach her."
Complete shock. I've never heard a demon speak like this, in words of our own. It-he-has a deep, sorrowful voice. Not entirely human, but the words are clearly formed. A demon who can speak as a human must also be able to think as a human. Drust's prediction-and our worst fear-has been confirmed.
Then the meaning of his words sink home. He knows Drust has been trying to teach me. He knows I've been failing. That means he can either read minds or...
"He's been following us!" I shriek, taking a step towards the heartless creature.
"Bec!" Drust hisses. "Don't get involved!"
"Such sadness," the demon murmurs. "So much pain. A quest doomed to fail. This land overrun by demons. Everybody killed. And all your fault, Little One. Your people will die because you failed them. Imagine the humiliation and guilt."
I tremble, not wanting to believe him. But he sounds so sure of himself, so certain this is what the future holds. There's pity in his voice. I get the feeling he wants to comfort me. As I'm thinking this, the demon extends two arms and nods encouragingly. "Come to me," he whispers. "Seek solace in the embrace of loving Lord Loss."
I move closer to him, gripped by his power and the promise of comfort. The demon-Lord Loss-smiles and nods again. This isn't right. He's making me do his bidding and nothing good can come of that. But I can't resist. I'm filled with a sense of grief and only Lord Loss seems able to help.
Then Drust is by my side, talking quickly. "Use magic. This demon is of the Otherworld, of the stars. He generates power. Take it. Use it. Fight."
My body continues forward as though Drust hadn't spoken. But my mind's in a whirl. I'll die if I come within the demon's reach. He'll suck all the life from me and toss me aside, or keep me on as a member of the undead. I try using old magic spells to fight him but I can't move my lips to utter the words.
Drust's warning echoes. The demon is of the stars. He generates power. I recall my recent lessons, the spells Drust tried to teach me, how he encouraged me to draw from the stars, to channel magic from a celestial source.
With my mind, heart and spirit I reach out to Lord Loss. I feel his power, his magic. And I draw from it. I rip it from him sharply, fiercely, filling with it, hair shooting up straight, eyes widening, arms flying out wide.
The demon gasps and rises a few feet higher off the ground. I float too, supported by magic, drawing my power from the sky instead of the earth, becoming part of the world of the air.
I turn my hands palms down. Two large stones rise from the ground, ripping free, dripping soil and pebbles, floating upwards. They stop short of my hands, which I slide behind the stones. I look from hand to hand, stone to stone. Then at Lord Loss. I smile-and push. The stones zip towards him.
The demon's arms shoot out and the stones explode into clouds of dust and tiny brittle shards. Everybody ducks to avoid being pierced. Except me and Lord Loss. We remain motionless, supported by the air and magic, staring at each other.
Some of the stone splinters strike the demon's cheeks and open fresh, deep cuts. He doesn't look angry or surprised. Just sad.
"Such potential," the demon sighs. "What a waste. To die so young, when you could achieve so much...""Begone!" Drust roars, getting to his feet, linking his right hand with my left. I fill with even more power than before. I feel like I could reach up and quench the stars themselves. "Go or fight!" Drust shouts."Fight?" the demon chuckles. "I could destroy you both without even nearing my limits." One hand starts to point at us. Then stops. The demon lowers his arms. "But where would be the sport in that?" he murmurs. And then he turns smoothly and drifts away into the darkness of the night.Just when I think he's gone, there comes a call from the shadows. "You stole from me, Bec. You took magic which was not yours. Pain will come of that. And great sorrow. And death." A teasing pause, then he adds, "It starts tomorrow."Then he really is gone, leaving behind silence, confusion... and terror.Connla's alive. He rises when the demon leaves. Pale and shivering. He says he was asleep until my shout, that he couldn't move when he woke, held in place by magic. Drust checks to see if the demon has fed from him but can find no marks on the warrior's flesh.I'm not interested in Connla or why Lord Loss was whispering to him in his sleep instead of killing him. I have time only for magic. I've never felt this powerful or so alive. The world looks and feels completely different. I can see as if it's day. The stars are brighter than a full moon, shining through the cover of the clouds, pulsing, multicoloured. And they're connected! I couldn't see it until tonight but now it's obvious. The sky's like a giant system of roots, each star linked. The lines between the stars are veins of magical power. The sky is alive. I can draw magic from it, just as Banba taught me to draw from a tree or a stag.I reach out with my mind and suck in power. I want it all, the whole of the sky, every bit of magic it has to offer. I can be a goddess, capable of changing the world with a click of my fingers. I can..."No," Drust says softly. I look down and see that his hands are on either side of my shoulders but not touching me. His eyes are as dark as the sky is bright. "You must stop.""Why?" I whisper, continuing to draw strength from the stars."You won't be able to contain so much power. Your body will unravel. You'll die.""I can hold it together," I sigh. "With this much magic I can do anything.""No," he says firmly. "It will destroy you."I don't want to believe him. I don't want to stop. But I can see the truth in his expression. He's not a jealous teacher intent on holding me back-he's a worried ally trying to save me. Reluctantly I pull back and cut off the seductive flow of power from the stars. The world dims around me. I become human again.Drust's hands close on my shoulders and he squeezes warmly. "You did well," he says."I did it," I reply, hardly able to believe it now the moment has passed. "I made the magic work. Your magic.""Yes." He doesn't let go. He looks troubled. "I've never seen someone make the leap from novice to adept so swiftly. The demon said you stole magic from him. The power that involved...""I didn't mean to steal," I say quietly. "Is it a bad thing?"Drust shakes his head and smiles thinly. "No. Just unexpected." He releases me. "Now, let's get everybody settled down and restore the masking spells. There may be other demons nearby who might not be so willing to retreat as Lord Loss.""Do you know what he was?" I ask. "Why he could speak? What he meant about death and sorrow coming tomorrow?""We will talk about him shortly," Drust says. "First the spells. You can help me cast them this time. Listen carefully, then copy what I do." And he shows me. And I try it. And it works. Easy."Lord Loss is one of the more powerful Demonata," Drust says. We're all lying close together. It's late in the night but nobody can sleep, not after what we've so recently witnessed. "He's a demon master.""You said they couldn't come through yet," Fiachna notes.Drust nods thoughtfully. "When the first demon master forces its way through the tunnel, it will widen. There will be a flood of demons more powerful than those who roam the land now, eager to get in on the killing while there are humans left to kill. They'll be savage, unformed, monstrous. We'll know when they are here-the screams of the dying will fill the air."I don't think Lord Loss came through the tunnel, or that he crossed any time recently. He could speak our language. Even the powerful demon masters cannot do that without much practice. I believe he has been here for many years, walking among us.""How?" Orna gasps. "The demons only started coming last year.""No," Drust says. "Some came before that. There are ways for humans to summon them. They can never stay for long. They usually kill recklessly, then slip back to their own foul realm. But this one seems at home here..." He falls silent, then says, "Much of our knowledge of the Demonata comes from the Old Creatures. They walked the land once. This was their world. They instructed the early druids, told them about demons, taught them how to fight. But they did not teach us all that they knew. Perhaps they couldn't, since they were gods and we were only humans."As far as I was aware, demons could not roam this world freely unless a tunnel was open. That is what the Old Creatures taught us, and we have seen evidence of that in the many centuries since they withdrew from our company. But I see now that there are exceptions to that rule. Lord Loss must be one of them.""Are you sure he was a demon?" Goll asks. "He looked more like a Fomorii to me, judging by the old legends.""He was definitely a Demonata," Drust says. "But he is different to most. The majority revel in bloodshed. The masters are like the weaker demons which you've seen-crude and wild, interested only in slaughter. Lord Loss appears to be more cultured. Cruel rather than brute. He could have killed us but he didn't. Instead he spoke of sport and future suffering. He-""The stones!" I blurt out. I'd been thinking about him trailing us by day, moving among us at night, when an image clicked into place. "I saw him at the ring!" When the others look blank, I tell them about the demon I saw when we were trapped within the circle of magical stones. "There was one who didn't pay attention to Bran when he was running around and dancing. He was by himself, floating in the air, watching the rest of us. It was Lord Loss. He's been following us since then.""But why?" Orna asks."Sport," Drust replies, face dark with worry. "I think this demon is as vicious as any of the others, but he feasts on the agony of humans instead of their blood. Sorrow excites him. He must have sensed the promise of pain when he saw you and has been following ever since, waiting for the misery to start.""Then it will be a long wait!" Goll huffs. "I won't be played by a demon. Now that we know he's here, we can fight him.""Maybe," Drust says gloomily but his eyes are dark and I can see the embers of fear in them.