Dragonslayer's Return
Chapter 24 At the Heart of Darkness

 R.A. Salvatore

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The thing was huge, half again taller than Gary and as wide as three large men. Eight limbs, all dripping slime, protruded from it: two scaly legs, four long arms ending in clawed fingers, and two tentacles, waving teasingly, with suction rings along their length and tipped by a cudgel of thick bone. Was it a creature of the water, or of the earth? Gary wondered, trying to find some perspective, trying desperately to put this most awful sight in a proper viewpoint. The monster's wide mouth gulped in air, but below the face, where the torso widened, were rows of slitted gills, and, though this room had been dry, a large puddle grew around the feet of the monster.
"Not water," Gary whispered to himself, shaking his head. He had met a demon before, in this very castle, and had defeated the creature, but that fact did little to bolster Gary's confidence now.
Courage, young sprout, the sentient spear, sensing the man's failing sensibilities, imparted.
"Not water," Gary whispered again, and he ignored Diane's ensuing question at his side. He watched another ball of slime elongate to hang low on the creature's forward arm, then splatter to the floor. This was a creature not of earth and not of water, he decided, a creature of sludge, of the eternal torments of Hell or the Abyss, or some other awful place.
Gary was not the first to muster the courage to charge. Two of the five soldiers who had accompanied him and the King to this room burst from the line, crying for their King and waving their swords.
A tentacle whipped across low, catching one man on the side of the knee and dropping him to the floor - where he hit the slippery slime and slid in close to the monster. Before he could even shift his body around, the fish-demon slammed a heavy foot atop him and ground him mercilessly.
The other soldier stumbled in the slime, but held his balance and even managed a swipe with his sword. The weapon hit the creature's arm, but did not bite deeply, sliding down the slimy limb. A clawed hand caught the man by the wrist and jerked him forward.
Where the monstrous maw waited.
In charged Kinnemore, Gary, and the other three soldiers. Diane drew out her small sword, but hesitated, understanding that they would need more than simple weapons to win out. She glanced all about the room, searching for a door, searching for a clue, and noticed Mickey, shaking his head helplessly and fading away into invisibility.
The monster kicked the man under its crushing foot aside, and he slid all the way across the room to slam hard into the base of one mirror. The other man, his shoulder torn away, was thrown to the side, where he fell without a sound, too far gone to even cry out in agony.
Both tentacles met the charge. One hit a soldier on the side of the face, and he went down, his consciousness blasted away. The other whipping limb took out the feet of a second man, then continued on into Gary.
Gary had seen it coming, though (mostly because the first victim had cried out as he tumbled away), and he dropped to one knee and angled his spear in front of him to catch the brunt of the blow. He had been stopped, but with a deft shift of his weapon, he made certain that the dangerous tentacle stayed with him and could not impede his other companions.
That left only King Kinnemore and a single soldier moving in close to the monster. As its front limb reached out for them, both scored solid hits with their swords, and the arm dropped free to the ground, where it writhed of its own accord in the slime.
On charged the two, between the fish-demon's side arms. The King's sword slammed hard against the thing's gill, opening a new and deeper slit. An arm clamped around him, though, and hugged him tight, and he worked desperately to keep the chomping maw from his face and neck. He looked back for his accompanying soldier, but saw the man stopped cold, for the monster had grown a new limb, where the arm had been severed - and this one more resembled a spike than an arm, a spike that had impaled the surprised charging man!
Gary worked the spear fiercely in front of him, twisting and turning to keep the tentacle from retracting so that it might strike at him again, or strike at the man lying stunned on the ground not so far away.
Then Gary's breath was stolen away as the second tentacle smacked hard across his back, a blow that he believed would have cut him in half if he had not been wearing the armor. He felt himself sliding inevitably backwards as the second tentacle, its suckers clinging fast to his armor, moved away. As soon as he broke clear of the first, Gary kept the presence of mind to jab ahead with his spear, snagging it and pulling it along, as well.
"I'm with ye, laddie!" Mickey cried, coming visible right beside Gary, stabbing at the tentacle locked on the man's back with a puny knife.
"Use your tricks!" Gary yelled, stunned to see Mickey in a physical fight.
"And what use might they be against a demon?" Mickey asked sarcastically. The leprechaun's undeniably sharp knife dug in again on the tentacle, but Mickey seemed to Gary to be a tiny mouse nibbling a fat length of hemp rope.
Gary called to the man on the floor, told him that his King was in dire need. But the man could not rise, could not find his sensibilities enough to even know where he was.
That left Kinnemore battling alone in close, smacking his sword wildly against the fish-demon's head and torso, though the weapon, fine as it was, seemed to have little effect. The monster spat forth a line of slime, right into the King's face, blinding him. And then Kinnemore was yelling in agony, for the slime was based in acid.
Diane went down to her knees at full speed, slid across the wet floor as though it was ice, with her sword pointing straight ahead and angled up, braced in both arms. She hit the fish-demon in the armpit, the elfish sword plunging in right up to its hilt.
A hot green liquid spewed from the wound, and Diane wisely fell back. Her eyes widened in horror as the hilt of her sword fell to the floor, and she found that the blade had been melted away.
The fish-demon was fully capable of fighting multiple battles. Though it roared in pain from Diane's solid hit, and though it was still engaged with King Kinnemore, its tentacles worked in unison against Gary, pulling in opposite directions, one secured to Gary's back (and seeming hardly to notice the leprechaun's repeated strikes), the other tugging at the impaled spear.
"Hit it!" Gary screamed to his weapon, fearing that the spear would be pulled from his grasp. The spear complied, sending a burst of energy from its tip into the tentacle.
Gary inadvertently punched himself in the chin, under his great helm, as the tentacle whipped in a frenzy. He somehow managed to hold on, though, and the spear blasted again, and a third time. The tentacle danced wildly, but without control, its muscles reacting to impulses that did not emanate from the fish-demon's brain. Gary heaved up with all his strength, then reversed his grip and slammed spear and tentacle against the floor, the sharp edge of the mighty spear cutting through and free of the monstrous limb. Then Gary spun about, knocking Mickey face down in the slime and jabbing hard at the second tentacle, scoring a brutal hit.
"Ye're welcome," Mickey muttered dryly.
The fish-demon wailed and hurled Kinnemore to the floor, where he lay crumpled in the slime. Diane, weaponless, thought of going for his fallen sword, but discounted that avenue and grabbed the King by the collar instead, tugging hard. Surprisingly, the King resisted, even slapping Diane's hand away. Half-blinded by the acid, battered and bleeding in several places, Kinnemore went for his sword.
He forced himself to his feet, coming up right in line with the fish-demon's maw, and managed a solid slash across that wide mouth, taking out two fangs and sending lines of bright blood into the creature's mouth. The maw snapped forward; Kinnemore snapped his sword in line to block and scored a wicked hit.
But that blade wouldn't stop the powerful monster, and as it broke through, teeth gouging into Kinnemore's chest, only Diane's tug at the King's back stopped him from being bitten in half. Both Diane and the King fell back, and so did the fish-demon, for the sword was stuck painfully into the roof of its mouth.
Diane found her breath hard to come by as she looked around at the King's garish wound. Kinnemore smiled weakly at her, as if to say that it was worth the attempt, then slipped from consciousness. Diane couldn't secure her footing on the floor, but the slime worked in her favor, allowing her to drag the King quickly. Soon she passed Gary, who was still hacking away, and Mickey joined her, and together they got back to the place where they had first entered the room.
Gary regained his footing and, finally free of the sticky tentacle, covered the retreat. He struck repeatedly with the mighty spear, at the tentacles, at a reaching arm, at the bulk of the beast whenever it ventured too near. Still, Gary didn't see where he and his friends might ultimately run. Diane searched frantically along the spot where they had entered, but it seemed just a mirror now, with no handles or hinges. Not so far away, one of the soldiers started to rise.
"Stay down!" Gary cried to him, for the man was obviously dazed and in no position to defend himself. The soldier apparently did not hear, or did not comprehend the meaning, for he continued to rise, and almost made it up to his feet.
The fish-demon whipped a heavy tentacle across, the bone cudgel slamming the rising man on the back of the neck and launching him into a flying somersault. He flew into the nearest mirror and crashed right through, falling into a shallow alcove amid the shards of crumbling glass. He continued to groan and to stir a bit, but could not begin to extract himself from that mess.
Overwhelmed by rage, Gary charged ahead, thrusting the spear in vicious and effective overhead chops. As with Diane's sword, the mighty spear plunged into the monster's torso, but the spear, unlike the sword, could not be damaged, could not even be marked, by the green acidic gore.
Gary blindly struck repeatedly, growling every time his weapon hit something substantial, but soon his fury played itself out. He had backed the fish-demon halfway across the room, but now it was the creature that was advancing. Gary slashed the spear across in front of him, parrying the lunging limbs and the prodding spike. There were too many angles, though, too many limbs and weapons from this unearthly beast. Gary saw a tentacle soaring at him from the left, down low, noticed out of the corner of his eye the other tentacle, fast flying in from the right, up high.
"Oh, no," he muttered, and he jumped and tried to curl into a ball, feeling like a double-dutch rope skipper on the local playground.
He got clipped on the heel and the opposite shoulder, the momentum of the heavy blows sending him into a double spin, sending his loose-fitting helmet flying away, before he crashed down to the floor. He heard Diane calling, heard Mickey calling, but all he saw was the fish-demon leering, smiling at him as it began its advance once more.
Gary fought to regain his footing, tried to rationalize that the fight was going better than he could have hoped, that he had scored many serious hits on his monstrous opponent.
But when Gary looked to those wounds for encouragement, his heart fell away, for all the wounds were fast mending, closing right before his eyes.
He muttered a hundred denials in those next few seconds, a hundred pieces of logic that told him this could not be. But it was, and his words were truly empty. Gary was still muttering when he felt the butt of his spear tap the mirror at his back, when he noticed Diane and Mickey flanking him, their expressions as hopeless as his own.
Reacting on pure survival instinct, Gary spun and slammed the spear into the mirror. The glass broke apart, but though the companions had entered through this very area, they found no door behind the break, just another shallow and unremarkable alcove.
"Search it!" Gary cried to Mickey and he spun back, whipping his spear across just in time to deflect a tentacle swipe from the closing monster.
The fish-demon roared and charged suddenly, and Gary and Mickey and Diane all cried out, thinking their doom upon them. Simply because she had nothing else to possibly do, Diane lifted the Polaroid and snapped a picture - and the blinding flash stopped the fish-demon in its slimy tracks.
Gary didn't miss his one chance. He leaped out from the wall and plunged.the spear deep into the monster's chest. The fish-demon fell back, off the tip, and responded with a tentacle clubbing that staggered Gary and almost knocked him from his feet. The monster was in a slight retreat, though, giving Gary the time to recover.
He heard a winding noise then, and turned to accept the other flash, the one that could be fit atop the Pentax, from Diane. He saw that Mickey was in the newest cubby by then, but the sprite was shaking his head, finding nothing that gave any clues to a door.
Full of determination, but not of hope, Gary advanced on the monster. One of the other soldiers was up again, wounded but willing to fight, and with sword in hand. He and Gary shared a nod, then advanced.
A tentacle slammed the soldier, but he caught it and went with it, holding fast with one hand while hacking away with his sword.
Gary spun to the other side, his spear intercepting and driving away the second tentacle, and then he charged straight ahead and scored again with yet another solid overhead chop.
"How many can you take?" Gary snarled defiantly at the fish-demon and struck again, then leaped back and twisted frantically to avoid the rushing monster and its front limb that had become a deadly spike.
He avoided the hit, but lost his footing, slamming heavily to the floor. And when he managed to look up, there was the demon's maw, barely a foot away, too close for him to bring the spear to bear. Gary didn't know if the "ready" signal was lit on the back of the flash or not, and didn't have the time to look. He just thrust the small box forward and pushed the button.
The flash did fire, and the fish-demon bellowed and fell back, allowing Gary to scramble to his feet. The spear-wielder backpedaled, and winced as the outraged monster gave a tremendous snap of its engaged tentacle that sent the poor soldier spinning across the room.
Then Diane was beside Gary, though he was far from Mickey and the fallen Kinnemore. She had no weapon, though.
Just a photograph, a picture of the room that revealed, in the light of the flash, a slender silhouette behind one of the mirrors.
Gary lifted the spear over his head, prepared for the fish-demon's final charge, the one he knew he and Diane could not hope to stop.
On came the beast; Diane stuck the picture in front of Gary's face.
It all happened too fast for Gary to truly sort it out, but the one thing he held above all was his trust in Diane, and when she called for him to "Throw the spear!" he understood her meaning perfectly. With a primal scream, Gary shifted and heaved the spear to the side of the demon, past the demon. It hit a mirror and dove right through, and cracks widened around the hole. Shards of glass fell clear, and there, in the alcove, stood a stunned Ceridwen, Donigarten's spear deep into her chest. She grasped at its shaft and tried to scream, but no sound would come past her trembling lips.
Gary and Diane were watching the fish-demon, though, and not the spear's flight. The monstrous beast bore down on them, seemed to fly straight for their hearts. They huddled together and cried out, certain that their death was upon them. But like the mirror covering Ceridwen, the fish-demon suddenly split apart into black shards and fell away to nothingness.
And then the room was strangely quiet, eerie, with Gary and Diane standing at each other's side, holding each other, in the slime and the gore and the devastation.
"The laddie got her again!" yelled Mickey McMickey, the most welcome voice and words that Gary Leger had ever heard.