Chapter 22: Will-o’-the-wisp

By his own best estimation, Chris rose midmorning to rain and dreariness. Still half-taken by sopor, he fumbled his way into his armor and slouched just within the doorway of the Defender’s Barracks, the wooden door halted from closing by one elbow.

Sheets of rain lashed against the paved road outside and his foot hesitated at the threshold. Then he scrunched up his face and marched unconvincedly out into the wet and damp. His clothes were instantly drenched but, once he was outside, it wasn’t too incomprehensibly awful; the water pouring off the roof has conspired to misrepresent the heaviness of the rain, while also soaking him with the runoff.

Nothing seemed particularly pressing, so, after buying and scarfing down a steaming sandwich that the General Supplies Vendor seemed to magic out of thin air, Chris strode out of the Kingscastle gates and made for the forest nearby.

The rain must have been pretty consistent while he’d been asleep. The cleared area had turned the muddy field surrounding his keep into a sucking mire that threatened to swallow his boots whole and leave him hopping around like a fool.

Things went quicker once he reached the grassy edge of the forest. His boots left a slick of mud behind him as he began to jog through the forest, looking for prey.

He shifted his grip on the hammer he’d bought as he reached the glade. Empty, except for the ruined obelisk in the center and a few stray demons.

He needed to level up, though, so he hefted his newly bought hammer and slammed it into the skull of a demon that had turned to hiss at him. His new weapon was obviously made of sterner stuff than the mace, or maybe the extra weight and length helped more than he thought; the demon’s face buckled beneath the blow—exploding with black blood—and Chris pivoted to block a leaping demon with his shield.

He slid back on the slick grass, but his defenses held. The angle made it difficult to leverage a full-force blow, but the next demon still went down in the second strike. He followed through with a backhand strike, arm extended, and smacked a third demon into a fourth. They both collapsed to the wet grass in a tangle of wings and limbs as the last demon leapt at him.

Chris’ reaction time had reached near superhuman levels; he ducked. The demon sailed over his head, then landed. Its claws dug into the soil beneath the grass, steadying it.

The monster leapt, and a hammer sent it crashing to the ground with a caved ribcage.

Chris felt a prickle like static, then staggered as something slammed into his back, then another. Unable to keep his footing on the slippery ground, he collapsed. The two tangled demons had extricated themselves while he’d been busy with the last and tackled him from behind.

Mud oozed between the grass, thwarting any traction he tried to achieve on the wet ground. Standing was futile and he gasped mouthfuls of churned water and dirt as one of the demons’ claws dug into his flesh, curling beneath and between gaps in his armor.

Desperately, he rolled and released his weapon, pushing off the bat-faced demons and the ground.

One demon toppled off him, while the other ended up beneath him. He pressed the head of the pinned demon down into the mud with one hand while reaching for his discarded hammer to ward off the second demon scraping itself off the floor.

He forgot about the wings. The wings of the demon trapped beneath him unfurled, even as the demon started to drown in mud. Chris was flipped off the demon’s back, but he kept on pushing down on the monster’s head.

The second demon was up and readying to leap. His weapons were too far away. The drowning demon in his grip struggled as it burbled mud. Chris kept on pressing. The second demon leapt.

Only allowed on

Chris flinched back and swung the drowning demon. The demon’s muddy claws scored parallel lines through the leaping demon’s throat, leading to an explosion of black blood from the wound.

The monster’s momentum carried it forward and Chris ended up with two demons on top of him again. It wasn’t how he expected to spend the morning, that was for certain.

Half-drowned or bleeding out, the demons put up little resistance as he thrust them away and limped staggeringly toward his hammer. He bent down, letting out a small whimper at the pain in his side, picked up the hammer and hobbled back.

The hammer fell twice and the glade was once against silent except for the sound of rain.

Chris let the weapon fall and pressed a hand to his wounds. The demons had got him good. He pulled his hand away to examine his palm. It was covered in demon gore, but only contained the faintest traces of his own blood.

He wiped his hand against his sleeve. That was creepy. He kept on forgetting about the whole slime for blood thing that stopped him bleeding out. It was, he supposed, useful. One less thing to worry about.

Still, he hurt all over and he wasn’t used to hurting like this. The last few days had been a horrible shock, in which he had become a leaf in a whirlwind of pain.

He summoned a healing potion from one of the tattoos and swigged it. He wanted to test its efficacy against imbibing it with his Slime arm. He really needed to come up with a name for it.

His body was filled with warm, fuzzy healing streams as his flesh knitted back together. The potions didn’t seem to have much difference between swallowing them and getting the Slime to swallow them. Then again, he was probably using way too much potion to deal with small wounds.

He shrugged and retrieved his gear. Better to use too much potion than to use too little and still have massive holes in his body.

After letting his arm chow down on one of the demons, Chris moved on. If there was one benefit to the rain, it was how it sluiced streams of black demon blood off his body and into the mud.

He strode out of the glade and went deeper into the forest, there had to be more monsters somewhere inside.


The trees had gotten taller and the foliage thicker and harder to traverse. The leafy canopy was no longer a permeable filter that allowed light and rain to leak through, but now a dark blanket draped against the outside world.

Most of the forest floor was blessedly dry, although the rain still fell and so curtains of leaf-channeled water fell in large quantities in some areas—gouging out patches of forest floor and no doubt contributing to a rich history of undulating and uneven footing within the undergrowth. Overall, though, hopping over small streams was far more pleasant than wading through a river of mud.

The forest gloom was deepening overhead and as he continued, the tree trunks became wreathed with unearthly mist. There were sounds from deep within, rustling and hissing and snarling, all distorted as if muted by a frost giant’s breath.

Shadows and red lights danced within the pale haze like will-o’-the-wisps, fading suddenly then reappearing elsewhere, and giving the mist a chthonic, phantasmagoric feel—the sense of demons dancing in smoke.

Chris took a step back, then steeled himself and walked forward.

The mist was cold and clammy, and the noises—which had sounded muted outside of its confines—were far more pronounced inside. A roar erupted beside him and he whirled to bring his shield to bear, but there was nothing except the shapes and lights in the mist.

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The red lights continued to bob and dance, appearing for a brief wraith’s jig before vanishing into smoke and shadow.

He tread cautiously, making certain every step was sure, wary of losing his footing in the fog.

The appearance of the entire area reminded him of tales of swamp lights, called ignis fatuus or aleya—luminous phenomena that hung in the air, luring unwary travelers to their doom.

The mist shifted; an icy wind wrapped its diaphanous fingers around him, ensconcing him in a cocoon of roiling cloud. Visibility worsened and the red lights drew closer, borne on the backs of shadows. Above the trees there was cloud-filtered sunlight, but here, beneath forest shade, the dark closed in and wove twilight among the fallen leaves.

He shivered as the first pair of lights resolved themselves, lower than expected, black ringed with red, set evenly apart.

The lights faded like stars in the night sky, before reappearing again. Chris’ breath hitched. Not lights. Eyes.

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