The day is in its final stages when we come to a cliff high above the sea. We've been climbing for the last half hour, out of sight of the waves. Now we stop, stunned by the new view. The cliff drops straight beneath us, as though the land had been cut away with a godly knife. I take an instant step back, terrified I'm going to fall. Most of the others retreat instinctively too.
But Drust isn't afraid. He breaks into a smile and points towards a row of cliffs, jutting out into the sea like gigantic fingers. It's amazing scenery. Even Goll hasn't seen anything like this-he was further north when he came to the coast as a young man. We gawp, astonished.
"There," Drust says. "The third Jutland from the end-that's where we're going." He looks at the sun, then the land around us. "We should be fine. Demons don't like the throb of Old Magic and usually avoid it. But let's not tarry, just in case."
We push on, moving downhill now, following the coastline. Seagulls are settling in their nests for the night, cawing and screeching. Some rabbits watch us from a safe distance. Even further beyond the rabbits, a small, rugged pony grazes alone. I can't see it lasting long by itself out here in the demon-pillaged wilds.
At the foot of the dip there's hard, level ground. It's possible to crawl forward on your stomach and look down directly over the edge of the cliff. Drust doesn't pause-he's not interested in the view, intent on reaching the third jut of land-but the rest of us can't resist the opportunity to gaze upon the sea from such a spectacular viewpoint. Lying on our stomachs, we wriggle forward to the end of the world and a sight that surpasses any I ever dreamt about in the past.
Unbelievable. With my chin resting over the edge, and the rest of my body hugging the cliff edge for dear life, it's as if I'm suspended in mid-air, looking down at the sea as a bird or god must. I see the heads of seagulls nestled in the rock. The white of the waves as they batter the base of the cliff, visible even in the dim light of the advanced dusk. The rolling, crashing sounds. The scent of birds and salt.
The urge to throw myself over the edge is strong. To die so beautifully, so perfectly... to fly for a handful of seconds... become part of the sea, dashed against the rocks until I'm nothing, then swept away to the Otherworld in the company of fish, mermaids and all the other creatures of the deep...
I ignore the suicidal urge, but it's difficult. I suppose people who live along the shore grow hardened to this call of the sea. But it's dangerous for land-dwellers like us. When I look up, I see misty expressions on the faces of the others, which prove I'm not alone in my desire to cast myself off.
But there's something else in those expressions which I feel too-triumph. Though I'm tempted by the call of the sea, I resist. It can't claim me. In a way I'm stronger than the waves and I feel good about that. Smug, even.
We remain lying on the ledge for what seems a long time but is probably no more than a few minutes. Connla's the first to crawl back and stand up when he's a safe distance from the edge, where the wind can't catch him and whip him over. Ronan rises next, but closer to the edge than Connla, not afraid of the whirling, whistling wind.
The pair head after Drust. A minute later Goll follows and that's the signal for the rest of us to retreat. Bran's the last to leave, laughing as he gazes down, pointing at seagulls and waving as though he knows them. I call to him to come with us but he doesn't move. Annoyed-I've now had my fill of the sea-I double back, grab his legs and reel him in.
"Come on," I snap as he tries to squirm back to the edge. "We have to follow the others. It's not safe here."
"Eggs boiled leaf," Bran says, nodding to show that he agrees. But he looks at the edge one last time, regretfully, before rising, linking his hand with mine and jogging after Lorcan at the rear of the main pack.
We've almost caught up with Lorcan when the demons attack. They burst out of the earth like savage worms, a dozen or more. Multi-limbed. Many have several heads. Claws like branches on a tree. Mouths full of fangs. Gibbering and howling-familiar demon sounds.
Most attack the main group of Fiachna, Lorcan and Goll. A few go for Ronan and Connla. One lumbers after Drust, far ahead on his own. And one surges at Bran and me.
I reach inside and draw upon my magic, forgetting in the heat of the moment that it's the magic of the Demonata, unable to worry about what I might unleash. Lips moving quickly, I fill my hands with fire, then blow flames at the demon, which has two heads-one of a bear, one a fox. The demon screams and falls. Bran laughs and leaps over the flailing demon, then leaps back again, playing with it as if it was a skipping rope of fire.
Drust's demon is almost upon him when he flicks his right hand, casting a spell. The demon flies over the druid's head, then off the cliff, falling to its death on the rocks beneath, hollering hatefully all the way down.
The others are battling, swords and axes flashing, hacking at demon flesh. Drust starts back to help, then pauses and stares inland. I follow the direction of his gaze and spot a figure in the distance, hovering above the earth. There's no mistaking him, even in this poor light-Lord Loss. Something that looks like a dog is jumping up and down beside him.
Drust hesitates, then races along the cliff, heading for the Jutland where he said we'd be safe, leaving the rest of us to fight and, if we lose, perish.
I curse the druid, then wade in to where Lorcan, Goll and Fiachna are struggling with the demons. The ground around them is slippery with blood, littered with demon limbs, chunks of flesh, even a head or two. But still the demons press on, driving the warriors and smith towards the edge of the cliff, seeking to push them over.
I touch the back of a leathery demon about twice my height. It looks down at me and laughs. I say a word and the nails of my fingers instantly lengthen, digging deep into the monster, piercing its skin, bones, inner organs. The hellish creature chokes, blood gurgling up its throat. My nails burst out the far side of its body. I say another word and jerk my hand away, snapping free of the nails, leaving them buried within. The demon collapses, shudders, then goes still.
Another of the demonic pack sees what I've done. It screeches and hurls itself at me. No time for magic. I drop to my back, stick my legs up and halt the demon's charge with my feet. It swipes at me with a clawed hand. Barely misses my eyes. I point at its face. Words leap from my tongue and its head explodes, splattering me with blood and bits of bone and brain.
Rising, turning to deal with a third demon, I hear a human scream from further away. No time to check it out. A bull-headed demon is on top of Fiachna. It's bitten a chunk out of his left shoulder and is trying to latch on to his throat. I dive at it, grab its mouth, put my face close to its pink, cracked lips and breathe out.
A mist flies into the demon's mouth. It coughs, tries to snarl at me but can't. Because the mist has thickened and clogged its throat. It can't breathe. Some demons don't need to breathe but this one does. It falls away, scratching at its neck, eyes bulging as it suffocates.
Goll and Lorcan force the final demon over the cliff, pushing it off, only just avoiding a lashing tendril which threatens to drag them over with it. They glance around, make sure we've dealt with all the monsters, then rush off to help Ronan and Connla. Bran and I follow just behind.
When Goll and Lorcan stop short I fear the worst. But running up, readying myself to cast more spells, I see the demons fleeing, Connla standing proudly by the cliff's edge, sword raised, bellowing colourful curses after the monsters. We approach uncertainly. Connla beams at us, his blade grey and green with demon blood. "Cowards!" he laughs. "They didn't have the guts to fight! I ran them off! Did you see how fast they-"
"Ronan," Lorcan interrupts, scanning the area. "Where's my brother?"
Connla sighs. "They forced him over."
Lorcan stares at Connla, then walks to the edge of the cliff and looks down. The rest of us hang our heads, the joy of victory already forgotten. There's a lump in my throat that makes breathing almost as hard as it must have been for the demon I choked to death. I flash on images of Ronan fighting, hunting, laughing, flicking blood from his long, curly hair as he raced from the pack of demons who first pursued us. He would have wanted to die this way, fighting, but that doesn't make his loss any easier for me to bear.
"He fought bravely," Connla says. He probably means to comfort Lorcan but he sounds patronising, as though talking to a child.
"Did he fall before or after the demons ran?" Goll asks.
"Before, of course," Connla frowns. "They forced him over. He was close to the edge. He never stood a chance."
"Yet they left you alone?" Goll doesn't phrase it as a challenge but it's hard not to interpret it as such. "They killed Ronan, then ran?"
"They saw I wasn't such an easy touch," Connla snorts. "They got lucky with Ronan, but when they tangled with me and realised they were out of their depth, they ran for their miserable, demonic lives." Connla's face hardens and he looks at each of us in turn. "You don't seem too pleased," he mutters darkly.
"It's strange," Fiachna says uneasily. "Demons don't fight that way. To catch a person in the open... outnumbering him... night just beginning... then running off..."
"What are you-" Connla starts to roar.
"Enough," Lorcan stops him-and the rest of us too. He turns from the edge of the cliff, face strained but resigned. "Ronan's dead. That's the end of it. I don't care why the demons ran. There will be no arguments, not at a time like this."
Goll and Fiachna look down uncomfortably. Connla too.
"He didn't die through any fault of his own," Connla says. "They took him by surprise. It was just bad luck that he was so close to the edge. I would have saved him if I could."
Lorcan nods slowly. "Luck will always turn against a warrior in the end. You have nothing to answer for." He looks off into the distance, to where Drust is still running, closing in on the Jutland. A light flares in Lorcan's eyes. "That coward, on the other hand..."
He sets off after Drust at top speed. I share a worried look with the rest of the group, then hurry after him, afraid of what will happen if he catches up with the druid in this dark mood.
Drust has reached the Jutland by the time we get to him. A long stretch of cliff sticking out into the sea, grass growing thickly along the top, blowing ever easterly from the winds coming in from the west. He's sitting in a spot in the middle of the Jutland, hunched over against the wind, his chess set on the grass in front of him, studying the figures.
"You!" Lorcan shouts, striding up to the druid. Drust doesn't look up at the furious teenager. "You abandoned us and left us to the demons! What do you have to say in defence of yourself?"
No answer. Drust is fully focused on the chess game.
Lorcan's axe is in his left hand. He raises it, his youthful face twisted with hatred. I want to stop him but I dare not interfere. And, to be honest, part of me loathes Drust for running out on us and wants to see him punished.
Connla roars a warning and reaches for his knife, to intervene, but before he can, Drust says quietly, "You cannot harm me here. You will suffer if you try."
"Suffer this!" Lorcan screams and brings his axe down.
The head of the axe melts. The handle turns into a shaft of fire. Lorcan yells with pain and drops it. I blink dumbly-this is the work of magic, but it didn't come from Drust. It seemed to come from the earth itself.
"Violence is not permitted here," Drust says and he looks up. "If you try that again, you'll die."
Lorcan snatches for his sword with his unharmed right hand. Stops and curses. Kicks the smouldering remains of his axe and turns away, disgusted.
Drust looks around at us, meeting our accusing gazes without any hint of shame. "Lord Loss orchestrated the attack. He set the demons in place, knowing we must pass this way. I thought it was an ambush, so I fled for my life, as I was duty bound to. I see now it was merely a cruel game but I was not to know that at the time. I acted correctly."
"What are you talking about?" Goll snarls. "Ronan died. It was no game."
Drust shakes his head. "If it had been a real ambush, they'd have jumped me. Having trailed us this far and listened to our conversations, Lord Loss must know what our plan is. If he truly wished to stop us at this point, he'd have killed me. The rest of you don't matter. That was why I ran. I couldn't let myself fall, not this close to the end."
"Fancy words, but it boils down to the same thing-cowardice," Fiachna says.
"You may call it that if you wish," Drust says coolly. "But I told you from the start that your lives meant nothing to me. You've helped me come this far, and so served a noble purpose. I'm grateful for that but it makes you no less insignificant in the greater scheme of things."
Goll laughs bitterly. "I bet you didn't have many friends when you were a child!"
"Druids don't need friends," Drust replies, then regards his chess set again.
I study the Jutland uncertainly. Night is upon us and I can hear the howls of the demons that Connla ran off. And Lord Loss is still out there. I feel exposed, open to attack. "Are you sure we're safe?" I ask.
"Aye," Drust says. "This is a place of Old magic. No lesser demon can set foot here. A demon master can, but like us, they can commit no violence on this soil."
"Thank the gods for small mercies," Connla sniffs. "Are there more places like this along the coast, where we can shelter in the coming nights?"
"No," Drust says. "But we would have no need of them even if there were. This is the place I have been heading for. It's the end of the road."
Then he gives his attention over fully to the chess game, leaving us to stare at the grass, the drop on either side, the sea which stretches off into the distance-and wonder what exactly he brought us to this desolate place for.
Night darkens. Black clouds blow in off the sea, unloading their rain on top of us. I'm glad of the rain at first-it washes the worst of the blood from my face and neck-but its appeal quickly fades as a chill sets in. To combat the rain and sharp, bitter wind, I create a fire using magic and we huddle around it, capes and cloaks pulled over our heads, shivering from the damp and cold.I've treated Fiachna's wounded shoulder, but it's a nasty purple colour. I'm not sure I cleaned out all the demon's poison. It doesn't look too dangerous at the moment but I'll be keeping a close eye on it.Lorcan is silent and distant, thinking of his dead brother. There's not much you can say to a warrior when a loved one dies. Death is something all warriors learn to embrace. It's part of their trade. At least Ronan died in battle. Lorcan will miss him but life must go on. There's no benefit to be had from weeping or wailing like a woman or a child.Drust continues with his game, head bent over the board to shelter it from the rain, moving figures around slowly, after much deliberation. Maybe this was his aim-to escape to a place where he'd be protected, safe to play his games of chess all night and day in peace.After an hour the rain eases and moonlight breaks through the clouds. We should be grateful, but now that we can see more clearly, we spot Lord Loss hovering near where the Jutland starts, watching us intently.With shouts and cries, we scramble to our feet and the men draw their weapons. Goll starts forward, roaring, then halts, remembering what happened to Lorcan's axe. He lowers his sword and studies Lord Loss nervously.The demon master ignores the old warrior and tilts his head sideways for a better view of Drust. He seems fascinated by the game the druid's playing. He drifts closer. Something moves near where his legs end in long strips of flesh. I recall the dog-like creature I saw earlier. Peering down, I see that it has a large dog's body, but its head is long and curiously flat, a dark green or brown colour, with evil yellow eyes. And it has human hands instead of paws. A woman's hands.Lord Loss passes Goll. The dog demon starts to follow, then stops, growls and retreats a few steps. Drust was right about this place being out of bounds for lesser demons.Lord Loss drifts to a halt close to where Drust is sitting. We surround him, suspicious yet captivated. We've never been this close to a living demon for such a long period of time, free to study him at will. It's a strange sensation. I feel the magic around him, lightly crackling, not that different to the power Drust and I create when we cast a spell. Except his magic is constant, never changing.Finally the game ends and Drust begins rearranging the pieces."What is that you play?" Lord Loss asks, his voice laced with sorrow."Chess," Drust says and peers up. "You don't play?""No.""A pity.""But I would like to learn."Drust pauses, surprised. "Do demons play human games?""No," Lord Loss says. "But this interests me. I have never seen it before. And the board... there is magic in it.""This board is unique," Drust says, smiling proudly. "My master told me it is the original Board, a gift to us from the Old Creatures. My people have guarded it for many centuries, and others of magic protected it before the druids. Long ago, one of its owners fashioned a game to play on it, to pass the time. He crafted the pieces which have developed into what you see now, and so the game of chess came into being.""Then the board was not created for the game?" Lord Loss asks."No.""What was its original purpose?"Drust shrugs. "Nobody knows. As you noticed, it is an artefact of magic, but we have never been able to unlock its secrets.""Perhaps I could," Lord Loss says."Perhaps," Drust agrees, then smiles. "Some other time.""Why not now?" Lord Loss asks eagerly.Drust's smile spreads. "That's not possible. You have to leave.""I do not," Lord Loss frowns."Aye," Drust says. "You do." He raises a hand and Lord Loss drifts backwards."What's happening?" the demon master shouts, trying to stop but unable to."A minor spell," Drust chuckles. "I tire of having you hound our trail. This will keep you at a safe distance for a while.""No!" Lord Loss roars. "You have no power over me! You're just a human! You cannot command a demon master!""Normally, no," Drust murmurs. "But magic works differently here. I am able to do things on this Jutland which I could do nowhere else-and you are helpless to resist, since this magic is more mine than yours."Lord Loss's features darken and eight arms extend outwards. I feel power build within him, directed at Drust. Then it stops suddenly as he realises what will happen if he strikes in anger."You are very clever," the demon snarls, drifting further away. "But once I'm back on normal land my powers will be mine again. I will wait. And follow. And next time I will kill."Drust shakes his head. "The spell won't last for long, but it will hold for a few days, no matter where you go." He crooks a finger at Lord Loss and the demon master stops. "But I can break the spell now, if you wish to bargain.""Bargain with what?" Lord Loss spits."Information," Drust says. "Tell me why you follow us. Why you laid the trap but did not kill me. What's in this for you?""I feed on the sorrow of others," Lord Loss says stiffly. "I follow you because I know misery is your destiny. Your suffering brings me pleasure.""No," Drust says. "This land is full of suffering. I don't believe you'd pick us at random, out of all the thousands of tortured souls, for special attention."Lord Loss shrugs and smiles. "What other reason could there be?""You interfered with the girl," Drust says. The others look at me questioningly but I avoid their gaze. "You filled her with magic of your own. Why?""I like her," the demon gurgles. "I wanted to help.""Answer me honestly," Drust growls, "or I'll banish you.""Actually, I don't think you will," Lord Loss purrs, then points an arm at Goll. Abruptly, unwillingly, with a startled roar, Goll turns away from the rest of us and runs.For an awful second I think Lord Loss plans to run him over the edge of the cliff. But then I see he's more cunning than that-he's making Goll race to the mainland, where the dog demon is yapping with delight, ready to tear Goll to pieces on a patch of ground where there's no magical protection."Goll!" I scream and try to stop him with magic. But I can't find a way to unlock Lord Loss's spell."Release me," Lord Loss says. "Immediately. Or the human dies at the hands of the ever-faithful, ever-vicious Vein.""No," Drust says."You must," Lord Loss growls, "or I'll send the others to their deaths too.""No," Drust repeats."Very well," the demon master sneers. "Vein! Destroy him!"The dog demon barks and howls, leaping around, jaws snapping open and shut. Goll's almost at the mainland. A few more seconds and...Suddenly, Bran is in front of the old warrior, by the side of Vein, patting his knees, whistling as though calling to a tame dog and not some demon half-breed. Vein leaps at Bran. Lord Loss laughs. The rest of us gasp with horror.Then everybody's jaw drops as the dog demon licks Bran's face, before rolling over on to her back and offering her stomach to be tickled."Vein!" Lord Loss bellows. "Stop that! Kill him!"The demon ignores her master's call and whines with pleasure as Bran scratches under her chin. He's giggling, playing with her as he would with any normal dog, making cooing sounds and uttering the odd insensible word or two.Lord Loss can't believe it. Nobody can. But then Fiachna laughs out loud and soon all of us are laughing, pointing at the boy and the dog, and Goll standing beside the pair of them, having come to a stop at last. We double over, tears of mirth streaming down our faces. Even Drust is smiling.Lord Loss doesn't see the funny side of it. He glares at the dog demon, then the rest of us. When his eyes eventually settle on Drust, he snarls and says, "What manner of thing is that boy?""I'm not sure," Drust chuckles. "I knew he'd been blessed with some special form of magic but I never guessed he was this powerful. It seems he can charm any creature he wishes. And maybe that's only one of his lesser gifts. Who knows what else he might be capable of?" Drust's smile tightens. "Maybe he can kill a demon master."Lord Loss quivers but I'm not sure if it's with fear or outrage. "You have humiliated me," he hisses."Aye," Drust agrees cheerfully."You will pay for that." Seven of Lord Loss's arms come up and he points at each of us. "I place a geis upon you. A curse to destroy you all. Whether you succeed in your quest or not, none of you will know anything but misery for the rest of your pitifully short lives.""Your geis doesn't frighten us," Drust snorts. "Now begone-and I don't want to see you again any time soon."He waves his right hand and Lord Loss peels away as though blown by a strong wind. He shoots off the Jutland, managing to grab his dog as he flies past, yanking her away from Bran by grabbing her snout. Vein gives a muffled howl. Bran's hands stretch out after the dog and he waves goodbye. Soon the pair vanish from sight, separated from us by Drust's spell and the darkness of the night.On the Jutland we carry on laughing, delighted to have thwarted the demon master. But there's an edge to our laughter. A demon's geis is nothing to sneer at. As happy as we are, I'm certain that each of us is inwardly pondering Lord Loss's curse and wondering what sort of a price we might ultimately be made to pay for our meagre victory.