Instant reaction-magic. I don't waste time screaming. I bark a spell, my lips moving quicker than ever before. My hands heat up. Then, instead of wrenching my arms away, which is what the demon expects, I grab its claws tightly and try to scorch them to scraps.
It doesn't work. As my hands glow, the claws grasping me glow too. Brighter and brighter, the pair of us, a contest. For several seconds we are locked together, no words, my gaze fixed on my hands and the claws. Then I start noticing details-not claws but hands. Smooth flesh, eight fingers, two thumbs. Dark flesh but not demon dark-human dark.
I bring my eyes up but I can't see my attacker's face because of the magical glow. A swift inner debate. Then I let the power drain from me. The light dies away. Shadows reform. It takes my eyes a while to adjust but when they do I see that I was right-it's a man, not a monster. And he's smiling.
"Good," the man says. "You have magic-a bit anyway-and common sense. You'll do." Then he brushes past me, out of the hut, and summons the others with a far-reaching call.
"You can stop searching. It's safe. There are no demons here. Now come and find out why I sent the boy to fetch you."
The stranger's name is Drust and-as we immediately see by his long blue tunic and shaved, tattooed head-he's a druid. After calling us together and telling us his name, Drust doesn't speak for a long time. Instead, he builds a fire and casts a spell to prevent smoke and contain the glow within the crannog, so as not to attract demons. After a while he takes hot rocks from the fire-with his bare fingers-and places them in a pit filled with water. When the water is the right heat, he drops in chunks of meat wrapped in straw.
We sit silently, eyeing Drust suspiciously, waiting for him to speak. I've never seen a druid before. Wandering men of minor magic, yes, but never one of the legendary seers. His tattoos are amazing. They're a map of the stars, but they move like the stars do, slowly revolving across his scalp.
When the meat is cooking to Drust's satisfaction, he stands before us and runs a calculating eye over the group, one by one, judging. His eye seems to rest longest on me but maybe I just imagine that.
We're all tense. We have tremendous respect for druids, but we fear them too. They're human, but something else as well, powerful, with rules and ways of their own. We've heard tales of how they sacrifice children to the gods, breed with demons, build mountains, level raths and divert the course of rivers.
Finally, Drust looks at Run Fast. He smiles at the boy, then clicks his fingers. Run Fast edges over to him like a dog to its master. Drust ruffles the boy's untidy hair, his smile widening. "You did well, Bran," he says.
"Bran!" I gasp. "Is that his name? He never told us. We called him Run Fast because..." Drust looks at me calmly and I come to a halt. There's no menace in his eyes, but no warmth either. He studies me in much the same way that I've studied dead demons in the past.
"Yes," the druid says in an accent not of this land. "It's Bran. He didn't tell you because he's incapable of remembering names." Drust speaks slowly, the words sounding strange on his lips. I don't think our language is his own.
"Is Bran from here," Fiachna asks quietly, "or is he your apprentice?"
Drust raises a mocking eyebrow. "You think I would take an idiot as an apprentice?"
"He's simple but blessed," Fiachna replies. "He has speed and other powers not of normal men."
Drust nods. "Which is why I sent him for assistance. But, touched by magic as he is, Bran's brain can never develop. He would be as useless to me as he was to his own people." He pauses, then adds, "I doubt he came from here originally but this is where I found him."
Drust releases Bran's hair. The boy looks up at the druid, to see if he's going to pet him again, then slides over to my side and sits beside me. I stroke the back of his hands absent-mindedly while the conversation continues.
"And you?" Goll asks. "Where are you from?"
Drust points in an easterly direction.
"Are you a Pict?" Connla asks. "Drust is a Pict's name."
"I was, as a child, before I became a druid."
The Picts are an ancient people from across the great water to the east. I wasn't aware that any still remained. They're a dying race, killed or absorbed by stronger tribes. Drust must be one of the last of his kind.
Before we can ask any more questions, Drust points at Goll and says, "Are you the leader of this band?"
"No," Goll replies. "We have no leader. But I'm the eldest, so I suppose I can speak for us."
Out of the corner of my eye I see Connla bristle-he probably looks upon himself as the rightful leader-but he doesn't say anything.
"Then I will address my words to you," Drust says. "I'll keep it simple. I am here to end the demon attacks. I need your help. You must come with me."
He stops as though those few sentences are explanation enough.
The flesh around Goll's single eye wrinkles. "You'll need to tell us more than that, druid or no druid," he murmurs. "To begin with, what happened here and where are Run F-I mean, Bran's people?"
"Demons." Drust shrugs. "They'd been attacking long before I arrived. Bran's tribe-the MacRoth-were exhausted, close to defeat. Shortly after I came, that defeat finally befell them."
"The demons killed everyone?" Goll asks and Drust nods. "Then why not you?" He phrases it lightly, but it's clearly a challenge. It's unnatural for all to perish except this one stranger. What Goll's really asking is did Drust betray the MacRoth-and will he betray us too?
"They didn't kill me because they couldn't see me," Drust says. "Just as your people couldn't see me when they entered the hut where I was staying. I know masking spells which hide me from sight. If your girl priestess had been more experienced, she'd have seen through my shield. But she is not yet mistress of her arts."
"Why not hide the MacRoth too?" Orna asks angrily.
Drust sniffs. "All magic has its limits. I have the power to mask a handful of people but not sixteen."
"If not sixteen, why not eight?" Lorcan growls. "Or four? Or even one?"
"As your own magician-wet behind the ears as she is-can tell you, magic is draining. A masking spell for several people, maintained over a long period, would have tired me. I need to be at my most powerful if I'm to save all from the threat of the Demonata."
"Demonata?" Ronan frowns. He's been keeping one hand on his bow, ready to swing it round and fire off an arrow if Drust makes any untoward moves. "Do you mean the Fomorii?"
"They're not Fomorii," Drust snorts. "The Fomorii were brutish humans with just a hint of the demonic about them. The Demonata come directly from what you call the Otherworld. Their powers are pure. They cannot be fought and defeated by human means. Only by magic."
"I think many of the demons we've killed would disagree with that," Connla smirks.
"Familiars," Drust retorts. "Weak, mindless creatures. They've come ahead of their masters, like rats ahead of a mighty plague. When the true Demonata arrive your weapons will be useless."
Our features tighten. We'd guessed that more intelligent, stronger demons were coming, but not that we wouldn't be able to kill them. If this is true, it means the end of all we've ever known and cared about.
Drust cocks an eyebrow, inviting further questions, making it clear that such queries are a waste of his time. Goll pushes on anyway. "So you stood by and let these Demonata kill the MacRoth. We'll return to that, but first tell us-"
"We won't," Drust interrupts. "The MacRoth meant nothing to me, just as you mean nothing to me. My aim is to save this land. If sixteen-or sixty, or six hundred-have to die, so be it. The MacRoth would have perished whether I was here or not. Since their living or dying had no impact on my quest, I kept out of their affairs, just as I'll keep out of yours if I decide you are of no use to me either."
Goll's face whitens with anger but he controls his temper and instead of shouting, he hisses a question. "Tell us how we can be of use. If you're so powerful, what are we here for? We came to help people in distress, not a damn druid who has no need of us.""But I do have need of you," Drust says evenly. "I have travelled far to stem the tide of demons at its source. Such travels are perilous, even for one of my powers. I cannot complete my quest alone. When I set out, months ago, it was with several companions, all of whom fell in the course of our journey. I need new warriors to replace them.""Us?" Connla laughs. "You think we'll fight and die for you?"If you have any sense," Drust says. "The Demonata are your problem. They cannot cross the sea to my land. You and your people are the ones who will suffer if I fail.""We can fight the demons ourselves," Lorcan says stiffly. "We don't need help from the likes of you."Drust laughs. His laughter offends us all, but before we can react, he speaks quickly. "You haven't fought the masters yet, only their minions. The demons you've faced-along with the pitiful undead-are merely the first wave. A tunnel has opened between this land and the Otherworld. It will allow demons to enter our realm freely. It's a small tunnel but it's growing. As it grows, larger, smarter, stronger demons will cross. They can roam the land by day as well as night. And, as I've already told you, they can only be killed by magic."He stops. Our faces are ashen. Nobody can speak, not even the hot-headed Connla. When Drust has measured the impact of his words, he continues. "The druids won't come to your aid. This island had already passed beyond our control-the Christians drove us out. The view of most druids is that it makes no difference whether Christians or demons rule here. In fact many would prefer the Demonata-they hate Christians even more than demons.""But they'll slaughter us all!" I cry.Drust's expression is unreadable. "Aye." A pause. "Unless I stop them.""By yourself?" Connla sneers."There's just one tunnel and at the moment it's vulnerable," Drust says. "If the gap between worlds can be plugged, the demons can no longer cross. One man, if he has the power and knows what he's doing, can close the tunnel. I am such a man.""But why?" Fiachna asks. "If the rest of the druids don't care, why do you?""I have reasons," Drust says, lowering his gaze for the first time. "They are my own." His eyes rise again. "Will you help me or not?""To do what?" Goll asks."Stop the Demonata!" Drust groans. "Haven't you been listening?""I have," Goll says, smiling bitterly. "What I mean is, how can we help? What exactly do you want us to do?""I must go west," Drust says, "to the coast. There, I can find out where the tunnel is located.""You don't know?" Fiachna asks.Drust shakes his head. "I searched for it with my original companions. I thought I could find it by myself. I was wrong.""How will you find out by going to the coast?" Orna asks."That's my business," Drust huffs. "Yours, if you accept the challenge, will be to escort me safely. Say now whether or not you are worthy of such responsibility. If not, I'll send Bran forth again, to hunt for those of a nobler clan."Connla drives himself to his feet, hand going to his sword, ready to cut Drust down. But at a wave of Drust's hand he stops, frozen. It's a simple halting spell-Banba taught me several like it-but expertly woven. Connla might as well be carved out of wood.Drust looks questioningly at Goll. The old warrior's unhappy. His distrust of the druid is plain to see and mirrored on the faces of the rest of us. But if what we've heard is true..."You must come to our rath and tell your story to our king," Goll says. "If he's inclined to provide assistance, he can send more-""There isn't time," Drust interrupts sharply. "Come with me in the morning or return to your homes and I'll search for other allies."Goll sighs, deeply troubled. He looks around for advice."I don't trust him," Orna says, making a sign to ward off evil spirits. "But I am not of your tuath. I will follow your lead in this matter.""We've made it this far," Ronan says neutrally. "We can go further.""Perhaps he could teach us better ways to kill demons," Lorcan notes.It's clear the twins like the idea of journeying with the druid and facing extra dangers and demons. They're young and bloodthirsty. They care more about notching up kills than the welfare of the clan."I'm of two minds," Fiachna mutters. "Our people will think the worst if we're gone too long. Perhaps one or two of us should go back. Bec, for instance.I'm about to protest but before I can, Drust does it for me. "No!" he snaps with unexpected force. "If you stay, the girl stays. Her powers might come in useful. She's weak and undisciplined but I can work with her. She'd be an asset.""Connla?" Goll asks.Held by the spell, Connla can't answer, so Drust waves his hand again and frees the warrior. Connla glares hatefully at the druid, then spits at his feet. "I say damn him and all his wretched kind! Where were they when the demons came? We can hold our own without them, as we have since the start.""And if hordes of demons attack by day?" Fiachna says softly. "More powerful than any we've fought so far? Organised, brutal, unkillable?""Why should we believe that?" Connla counters. "He could be lying, just to-""The ring of stones and the church," I remind him. I shouldn't involve myself in this without being invited to share my thoughts, but I can't keep quiet. "We've seen the work of clever, cunning demons. It's true, Connla. You know it is."Connla hesitates, the memories altering his expression."It would be a great honour," Fiachna says wryly. "If Drust succeeds, and we play a part in that success, we'll be hailed as heroes throughout the four provinces."That's the clincher for Connla. If he could help save the entire land, his kingship would be guaranteed. And maybe not just king of our tuath, but of our province. Maybe more-the first high king of all the provinces. Many have tried to exercise complete control. All have failed. But still the greedier warriors dream."Very well," Connla grunts. "I vote we go with him."Goll nods reluctantly. "Then it's decided.""I thought it might be," Drust says with a self-satisfied smirk. Then he turns his attention to the meat boiling in the water and adds a few more hot stones to keep the heat constant.