Chapter 10.

Chapter 11: Battle of the bones

Well, that probably settles the question of what happens to a werebear's clothes. If they transformed along with the lycanthrope, there would be no reason to take them off. Helge-Dag is torn between common decency, which wants him to look away, and curiosity. He has never seen a werebear transform before. In fact, he has never seen a were-anything transform before. A part of him still finds it hard to believe that the big teenager is anything more than just that.

And then, suddenly, he is a believer. Birni stretches and seems to grow, melt, change. Dense brown fur spreads across his naked body, claws grow out of his hands, arms and legs swell even more. He stops as something still vaguely humanoid, but no longer quite human. A growl signals that he is ready for action. He joins Xarya, while the male troll stands in front of them, facing the tower. The female troll - Anla something - steps up behind the other three. Theelene gestures, and the path of sparks springs before them, stretching to the huge wooden gate three hundred paces away. They start running, leaving only Theelene and Helge-Dag behind.

The four are only halfway, even at the breakneck speed, when the wooden gate explodes. But it explodes outward. "Path off!" yells Xarya as the bone demons run toward them. Somehow the enemy must have sensed them, perhaps in the same mysterious way that Anla could tell what was within. And now they are jumping onto the path, rushing forward in the last few moments before Theelene manages to snap it off. Obviously this form of transport magic does not distinguish between friend and foe, at least in its current version.

Unluckily for the bone demons, the first thing they encounter on the path is broad enough to block it entirely. The male troll is not easily overrun, and furthermore it is not in a good mood. The battle begins.

Even from a distance, Helge-Dag realizes that he has been wrong about one thing. He had subconsciously assumed that "bone demon" was the local name for that staple monster from any role playing game, skeletal warrior. These critters are of a far less fragile constitution. They are roughly humanoid in shape, except they have four arms. They are slightly shorter than an average man, but bulkier. And they are encased in an armor of pale bone. From what he can see at this distance, the armor is probably part of them, a natural exoskeleton. And why not? Most insects have their skeleton as their skin, why not demons?

Being encased in solid bone would probably make them immune to arrows and slingshots as well as all but the best swords and the strongest swordsmen. After all, plate armor ruled the field in the Middle Ages, for those born into the privileged classes that could afford it. Depending on what other tricks the bone demons might have up their sleeve, they could probably rout a small army. But they do not exactly face an army.

Helge-Dag has seen a number of good football players on TV during his days back on old Earth. But he has never seen a ball sizzle away at quite the speed of the first bone demon hit by a swift kick from the enormous troll. Somehow a creature so big should be slow; but it isn't. The demon has learned this; but as it hits the wall of the tower, it will never learn anything again. There is a moment of stunned silence. Then pandemonium breaks loose.

With a loud yell, Xarya jumps into the fray, a gleaming blur of determined motion. Behind them, Anla starts to sing. It may seem like a strange thing to do, but then again Helge-Dag has never heard song like this before. Even standing well behind her, he is shocked by just how loud it is. It is a high keening, yet somehow melodious, and it burrows into the very soul. He feels the small hairs on his body standing up straigth as if the air was charged with static. In front of him, Anla's partner (or husband or whatever he is) seems to swell with even more energy. Any bone demon that comes close is stomped into the ground or thrown far away. The demons, for their part, seem to cringe at the sound, as if it grated on their nerves, like nails scraping on a blackboard. They seems to hesitate slightly. And this is not a good time for them to hesitate. The troll and Xarya are, each in their own way, weapons of mass destruction. The troll is an impassable wall, Xarya is lightning that cannot be outrun. She too seems to draw energy from the song. And in fact, it is all Helge-Dag can do not to rush forward himself, unarmed and inexperienced as he is. The warrior inside screams to be unleashed, and it is force of habit more than rational thought that restrains him.

A dozen dozens is rather a lot of bone demons, though. And Helge-Dag realizes that there may be no need to rush forward, quite the opposite. After the initial attempt to jump the enchanted paths, the bone demons now actively avoid the enraged troll warrior. Xarya jumps around engaging one and two and three at a time, parrying their two-foot claws and hacking through their bone armor. As the milling crowd comes nearer, Helge-Dag notices that the blood that finally spills is black rather than red. It seems thicker and there is less of it. But they do bleed, and they do die, demons or not. They just don't die fast enough.

Behind Xarya, Birni is trying to hold back the advance. But he is out of his league here. His claws may be magic, but so are the demons. He can only fight one at a time, and more than once Xarya has to leap to his side as two or three more demons jump on him. The troll, meanwhile, just goes for wherever there seems to be the thickest cluster of enemies. He may be lethal, but it is clear now that the demons has no interest in fighting him if they can avoid it. They are no more eager to die than ordinary mortals are. And their goal is becoming all too obvious. They are making their way around the four, toward the two behind them. And almost certainly, Helge-Dag realizes, they don't do so out of lust for Theelene, remarkably enough. They must be sent to kill him, or possibly capture him. He is not sure which would be worse. He starts to back away from the advancing crowd. The slaughter is still going on. Xarya in particular is still slashing with her gleaming sword, black blood trailing in an arc behind the blade as another limb is cut off. Birni is keeping them occupied, tempting them into battle with an opponent they may think they can vanquish. But not nearly all are distracted. They are coming, and they are coming too fast for comfort. Up close they are a lot more ugly than he had noticed before. Battle song or no battle song, Helge-Dag turns and runs.

"HD! Nooo!" Theelene cries out behind him, but he does not stop or even turn. She may have all the confidence in the world in her comrades, but he is not going to stay and test it. He runs. And then there is a rush of wind, and enormous claw-like hands grab him and yank him off the ground. Screaming out in panic more than pain, he turns his head and sees a monstrous reptile with enormous leathery wings. Vaguely like a pteranodon, one of the flying dinosaurs from Earth's past, it is huge. More than huge enough to hold him in its painful grip as it starts to soar upward. From below there are more cries as the rest have discovered the ruse. "Flight!" It is Birni who roars the single word, and Helge-Dag sees him run, his powerful muscles pumping him forward ever faster. Theelene gestures, and Birni leaps upward, like a cannonball aimed straight for the flapping pterosaur as it tries to gain altitude.

It all happens so fast that Helge-Dag can only observe, not react. The werebear is oozing blood from a large number of slashes all over his body, his fur is matted with red and darkening patches of the sticky stuff. Yet he does not hesitate for a moment as he locks his powerful arms around the neck of the giant flying reptile. Anla stops singing and shouts two words: "Jump dragon!" As if on cue, a golden glowing sphere starts to encase the dragon, Helge-Dag and Birni. Through the golden haze, Theelene can be seen gesturing with both hands. "Thwart!" she cries. Silver threads among the gold, and then the sphere closes out everything.

They fall into nothingness, but the fall is not steady this time. It is erratic, as if they are wildly careening through the multiverse, spinning chaotically. Nausea, a roaring buzz and darkness fills all senses. Then suddenly the sphere dissolves, and they are somewhere else, still in the air, but in bright sunlight, not the late twilight of the battlefield. The dragon screams, Birni roars, and then there is a horrible cracking sound as if a huge branch or a whole tree is snapped by some irresistible force. But it is the reptile's neck that is boken. They tumble down, spinning wildly. The claws have let him go, and Helge-Dag falls first, the reptile over him. He tries to turn around, but they were only a few meters above the ground and there is no time. Pain shoots through his right leg and rushes like a lightning bolt all the way to his brain, drowning him in blackness.

Chapter 12.
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