From Death: Demons of Sedona 2
Two years have passed since Tobin North nearly died in Miner’s Quarry, and much has changed in the world. Demon attacks are becoming more common in his village, and his father’s trade run is producing fewer of the crystals needed to protect the living from the dead. So when Tobin and his father are told they won’t be getting any new crystals this year, everyone begins bracing for the worst.
The worst arrives in the form of an abusive army that offers to defend the villagers at the cost of their homes, their food and their few remaining crystals. And when Tobin’s ex-girlfriend Vera and others begin plotting a rebellion, Tobin learns that freedom comes at a high price.
So once again Tobin and Vera are in danger. They’re on the run, the army is at their heels, and their village is defenseless against the gathering demons. Tobin’s only chance to save everyone is to travel south and uncover the secrets of the ancient city of Sedona. But some secrets are better left alone.
An early fall breeze snaked its way through Tobin North’s clothing, causing him to shiver and pull his cloak tighter around his shoulders. He considered turning back toward the square but stopped the thought. He didn’t have much free time, and he knew where he wanted to spend it.
Walking intently, he continued on through the streets of Miner’s Quarry, ignoring the commotion around him as he passed. Every so often he would catch a glance from a sorry-looking merchant at an empty stand, but the eye contact was fleeting.
He paused when he reached the edge of the market and considered his options. To south lay a large hill that offered breathtaking views of the village, the mountains and ocean beyond. The hill was once a favorite stop of his, a place he would visit every trade run. But he hadn’t been up there in two years, and in truth it felt much longer.
He turned to the north and continued moving. Maybe one day he would return to the hill. Not today.
The village’s population dwindled as he made his way toward the mountain base, although the he spotted the occasional group of children in front of a cabin here and there. He smiled at one cluster of little girls—who each looked to be about six years—as they sat in a circle. One walked around tapping their heads and reciting the old nursery rhyme.
Beware the demons of Sedona, They’ll steal the heart right from its owner. City guarded by a wall, Should the protections ever fall,The beast will turn you to a moaner.
The girl tapped another’s head and ran at the word “moaner,” with the seated child rising and giving chase. Tobin watched them play for a moment before shaking his head and continuing on his path.
The noon sun hung high in the air when Tobin reached his destination: a plain grey-stone building with large windows and doors that were chained shut. He didn’t approach the building, instead choosing to lean on a nearby tree as he stared at it. His thoughts drifted back to one terrible night two years ago, and his hand went to his head as he remembered the pain in his forehead. His thoughts then turned to Vera, and he thought about the wounds that had yet to heal, and that probably never would.
He withdrew a single sage flower from his cloak and slowly twirled the stem between his thumb and forefinger. The plant was more than Agatha Linleah deserved, but it wasn’t for her. Instead, it was for everything else that died that night, even if they hadn’t known it at the time.
Taking a deep breath, Tobin stepped forward and placed the flower on ground. A gruff male voice rang out as he finished the gesture.
“Hey, you. No one’s supposed to be here.”
Tobin looked up in time to see the mail-and-leather clad soldier as he trotted up, his hand on the hilt of the sheathed blade at his hip. The soldier was tall, almost as tall as Tobin’s father, with tan skin, a wide nose and unfriendly brown eyes. Tobin stepped backward and raised his hands in the air slowly, lest he make the man think that he was reaching for the bow at his back.
“Move along you,” the soldier barked. “This place is closed.”
Tobin nodded. “I know. I just wanted to pay my respects.”
“Pay them in a tavern, then. Now get.”
Tobin chose not to reply, swallowing his words as he nodded and turned around. He marched back toward the market, aware of the extra time he now had. He considered making the trek up the hill, but shoved the thought from his mind. He’d go back with Vera one day, or not at all. The hill was a reminder of the last good morning of their relationship, and he wanted to preserve that.
The children were nowhere to be found on the way back, and Tobin had nothing to distract him from his thoughts as he trudged back to the square. Instead he took in the sights of the market. It was smaller this year, with fewer merchant stands and vastly fewer traders. Did other villages suffer bad harvests, too?
It wasn’t hard to find his father as he approached the square. While Miner’s Quarry didn’t lack broad-shouldered and dark-skinned farmers, Atkin North’s height set him apart from everyone. He easily stood about a half-foot taller than most anyone else, he also kept a goatee where most men wore beards. His father could easily have been mistaken for a soldier, but one look at his eyes revealed a warmth that would have betrayed him on the field…usually.
Today that warmth was gone, as Tobin spotted his father yelling at a merchant with a ferocity that he had rarely seen.
“And just what am I supposed to tell everyone when I get back?” Atkin North growled.
“The same thing every other trader has told their families, and the same thing I was told,” the merchant replied in a low voice, as if he was trying to stay calm while explaining a simple concept to an imbecile. “I can’t help you.”
“Goddammit Beomann that’s not nearly good enough!” The farmer leapt forward and grabbed Beomann by the shirt collar, pulling the surprised merchant close to his goateed face. “This is garbage and you know it!”
Several heads turned in the direction of the commotion, and Tobin spotted two guards as they started to make their way over. Instantly he was at his father’s side, stepping in between the two men and pushing Atkin backward. “Hey now, no need for swears or swords. How about we take a break and try this again tomorrow?”
“To hell with tomorrow,” his father shouted, shaking free of Tobin’s grasp and huffing away. “We’re leaving.”
“Wait, what?” Tobin’s eyes darted from father to Beomann before he bolted after Atkin. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
“But we’re supposed to be here for four more days.”
“We don’t have any reason to stay.”
“But what about the cry—“
“I will not tell you again,” Atkin snapped, surprising Tobin. “Go pack up and be ready to hit the road in an hour.”
Tobin watched his father march off, his jaw agape. Atkin never lost his temper like that. Shaking his head, he gave chase. “I don’t understand, Dad, talk to me. What happened? What about the crystals?”
Atkin sighed, trying to calm himself down. He was apparently unsuccessful, because his face furrowed into rage and he spat on the ground. “That goddamn son-of-the-dead won’t trade for any crystals. None of them will.”
His father said nothing as the cart pulled away, and Tobin made no move to press the issue. Atkin wasn’t usually quick to anger, but he tended to stay surly for hours when he did finally explode. Tobin had no desire to be caught by misdirected rage. Instead he sat in stunned, glum silence as the cart pulled through the worn dirt road back toward the Eldryn River.
He considered glancing in the back of the cart to check for bags of encircling crystals, as part of him hoped that this was a bad dream or some elaborate prank on his father’s part.
But it wasn’t any joke. He had been there when the merchants in Trader’s Junction refused to trade crystals with his father. Atkin became furious then too, but calmed himself by looking ahead to Miner’s Quarry. Now that had come up short as well.
What would they tell the villagers back at Farmer’s Crescent? Their current batch of crystals was getting dangerously close to the expiration point, forcing every family into a dangerous game of chance each evening. Would this be the night that their crystal failed? Would the demons come pounding through their doors tonight?
The villagers back home depended on his father’s trade run, and they were coming home empty-handed.
The sun began to take on an orange glow when they reached a grey rock wall with a single opening next to the road. Atkin tugged on the reins, slowing the cart to a halt beside the cave. “We’ll rest here for the night,” he grunted as he jumped out of the cart and began to tend to Bolt, the family’s horse.
Tobin eyed the cave uneasily. Spending the night in the woods was never a happy occasion, but his father never stopped at this cave before. “Is it safe?”
Atkin nodded and motioned over to the cave entrance. Tobin followed and spotted lettering etched into the stone. “This cave’s a trader’s haven. Others have been here and vouched for it.”
Tobin leapt out of the cart and approached carefully. He peered inside the cave for a moment, making sure it was free of any lingering demons or animals before running his fingers over the lettering.
“How many caves like this are there?”
His father grunted as he unloaded bags from the cart and carried it into the cave. “Four or five throughout northern Camia.”
“You never told me about these before.”
“We never needed to use them.”
Tobin turned back to his father, dumbfounded. “Never needed to use them? This is the sixth time I’ve come with you on these runs. We’ve camped out at night surrounded by the dead dozens of times.”
Atkin, who was heading back to the cart to grab another bag, stopped and looked his son in the eyes. “You can’t always depend on a cave being around. You needed to learn how to take care of yourself in the open.”
Tobin couldn’t argue with that, so he didn’t. Instead he huffed and headed back to the cart. “I’m going to find us something to eat,” he said as he grabbed his bow.
Taking leave from his father, Tobin set off to find food before nightfall. The woods around the cave were thick, and he took care not to wander far from camp.
He spotted a small brown rabbit as he approached a fallen tree and slowed his breathing. Very carefully he took aim with the bow. He fired, and the arrow hit the rabbit in the side, knocking it over. It righted itself and took off. Tobin gave chase, knowing it wouldn’t travel far.
He found it moments later, head and front legs hidden in a burrow beneath a large rock. Slinging his bow over his shoulder, he crouched down to retrieve the meal when he noticed a crunching sound coming from the burrow.
“Goddammit,” he swore as he pulled a knife from his belt and approached, ready to defend himself against whatever scavenger had stolen his food. At the very least he would retrieve the arrow.
Slowly, he placed his hand on the rabbit’s back leg and pulled. The animal didn’t come free. Tobin sighed. Most likely some animal had its jaws around the rabbit’s front legs and wasn’t planning on letting go. He tugged harder, and there was a tearing sound as the rabbit’s muscles began to rip. Tobin kept pulling, he could hack off anything that had been eaten and salvage the rest.
With one more great yank the animal broke in half, sending Tobin falling backward with a hunk of broken rabbit. Tobin examined the carcass, which was missing its head and front legs. No big loss. He began to dust himself off when a grey hand launched out of the burrow and reached for him. Startled, Tobin dropped the rabbit and his knife and jumped backward until his back brushed against a tree. He kept his eyes on the pit as he fumbled to remove his bow and draw an arrow. In front of him, the grey hand slunk back into the pit. The crunching sound he heard earlier resumed.
Tobin kept aim on the burrow for several moments before taking a deep breath and struggling to his feet. He stowed the bow upon finding the knife and carefully approached the rock. With no rabbit in the way, he peered under it and groaned.
What he thought was a burrow was actually a deep pit—perhaps as deep as six feet. The opening was partially blocked by the rock and inside stood a single demon, greedily eating the rabbit head. The demon looked up at him and snarled, baring broken teeth and black gums before returning to its feast. Tobin looked back at the rabbit and sighed. There was no way he’d be able to safely cook meat that had been bitten. Grumbling, he kicked the rest of the carcass into the pit. The demon grabbed it and sank its teeth into the rabbit’s abdomen, the entrails leaking down its face.
Despite his frustration, Tobin found himself chuckling at the absurdity of the demon trapped below. “How in the world did you get down there?” He imagined it must have fallen in one night as it roamed the forest and was never able to find its way out. The boulder might have shifted over the opening during a rainstorm.
He eyed the skinny demon. It had once been a man, but its arms were now so gaunt that Tobin could see the bones in its forearms. This creature had risen from its grave long ago, which was a both a blessing and a curse. Older demons were weaker and moved far more slowly than fresher ones due to their continued decomposition, but years of successful feeding made them a bit smarter than their newer counterparts. A lone human stood a better chance of fighting off an old demon in combat, which is why the older ones tended to hide until it was time to strike.
Tobin’s stomach rumbled with jealousy. The rabbit would’ve been appreciated. Sighing, he turned his attention to the rock. It was probably what protected the demon from the light. Moving it would most likely burn the creature up.
“No sense in leaving you to steal someone else’s dinner,” he told the beast as he placed both hands on the rock and pushed. It didn’t budge. Tobin swore and pushed harder, to no avail.
Panting, he drew his bow and aimed for the demon’s head. If he couldn’t burn it he would simply kill it the old-fashioned way. He paused, stilling his breath and hearing nothing but the demon’s greedy chomping.
He relaxed his aim with the next breath, figuring it would be difficult to retrieve a second arrow from the burrow. Instead he slung the bow over his shoulder and brandished the knife as he crouched down at the pit entrance. The demon was still focused on the rabbit carcass, and Tobin waved to grab its attention.
The creature turned its head up toward him and snarled. It clumsily reached out its left hand to Tobin, the rabbit still clutched in its right. Acting fast, Tobin jammed the knife through the beast’s left hand and into the dirt. Black ooze leaked from the creature’s wound as it tried tugging free. Tobin looked around and picked up a fist-sized rock.
“Now, you are not going to like what comes next,” he said smashed the rock into the demon’s fingers. The beast continued snarling as its thin skin opened and black blood flowed freely, and Tobin was thankful for once that demons didn’t feel pain. A thrashing undead monster would have probably pulled him into the pit.
Tobin kept hammering away at the fingers until they were broken, limp stumps. He then repeated the process with the demon’s right hand, this time smashing the demon’s wrist until the entire hand severed. He kicked the severed appendage into the pit when he was done. The beast continued reaching up for Tobin, but now with mangled, useless stumps. It wouldn’t die from its wounds, but it wouldn’t be able to grab an unsuspecting traveler or their food, either.
His work done, he wiped his knife in the dirt and headed back toward the cave. The sun was setting, and there would be no more hunting. Soon the forest would be filled with demons not trapped in pits.
Atkin already had a fire built by the time Tobin arrived, and he was working on stringing up the spare encircling crystal they used when traveling. Tobin set his weapons down in a corner before grabbing a mat from the cart and laying on the cave floor. “So what’s the plan?” he asked as he rested.
“We head back to Trader’s Junction and try to get crystals there.”
“You think it’ll work?”
Atkin groaned. “No. I don’t.”
Feeling emboldened that his father hadn’t already torn his head off, Tobin decided to press his luck further. “You know, you still haven’t told me what exactly happened back there.”
Atkin glared at him, and Tobin held up his hands in mock surrender. “I get the basics, but why are the miners being stingy?”
“Best I know the king’s not letting them.”
“This goes all the way up to Corwan?”
His father nodded and Tobin whistled. If the King had truly clamped down on distribution of encircling crystals there was no point in heading back to Trader’s Junction.
“Why would he do this?”
“The same reason the king does everything; to remind us who’s in charge.”
“We can’t remember that if we’re all dead from demon attacks.”
The night’s first hisses sounded outside as the sun faded beneath the trees. Atkin turned his attention to lighting the crystal, and soon the entire cave was bathed in candlelight. Tobin watched as his father stared out the cave mouth into the darkening forest. He considered the weight Atkin must have been feeling at that moment, and he decided not to continue the questioning. They would try their luck at Trader’s Junction, and they would come through. Everyone was counting on them.