Paul Kemp: Shadowstorm

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Paul Kemp Shadowstorm
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Paul S. Kemp



11 Uktar, the Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR)

The freezing wind howls despair into my ears, rips through my meager clothing, cuts like knives against my flesh. In the bleak distance I hear the rumble of falling ice, the groan of gigantic glaciers grinding one against the other like the bones of titans. The pained screams of the damned rise above the noise and soak the air.

"Welcome to Cania," my father says. His voice comes from everywhere, from nowhere, and worms into my soul.

The power in his tone causes Erevis and Riven to clutch their heads and groan. The blood that leaks from their ears freezes a crimson streak down jaw and neck. Erevis leans forward and vomits onto the ice. It steams for only a moment before Cania turns it hard and cold. Riven does the same and the wind devours the curses he offers between heaves. My ears, too, might be bleeding. I cannot tell. I still feel the sting in my forearms from the Source's tendrils, but little else. Mind and body have not fully integrated.

I think: I brought us here. And the thought is accompanied by the despairing realization that I am, truly, my father's son. Darkness is loose in me, given freedom by my own hand. I have gone in a moment from possession by the Source to possession by an archdevil.

I laugh but it turns to sobs. The tears freeze on my face, unable to fall.

We stand on a soot-dusted mound of packed snow and rock overlooking a desolate plain of filthy ice. Rivers of hellfire cut a jagged, arterial path through the plains as far as I can see. Steam billows in the air where hellfire meets ice. The snow-swept wind carries the stink of charred flesh, rot, and brimstone.

Suffering and despair are thick in the air. Thrashing souls burn within the rivers of flame. Their screams, plaintive and agonized, make an eerie symphony with the wind. Ice devils-towering, pallid insectoids armed with iron hooks and coated in exoskeletons like plate armor-prowl the river banks. They are far enough away that they seem not to notice our arrival. Or perhaps they do not care.

The burning souls try from time to time to clamber up the river bank for a respite from the flames. They are free of the fire for only a moment before the gelugons pounce, impale them on their hooks, and toss them, flopping and screaming, back into the fire.

The scene makes me lightheaded.

Erevis spits out the last of his vomit, glances at the suffering, and turns away. He shouts a spell into the icy air. Shadows swirl protectively about him and war with the wind. He finishes the casting and puts an ice-rimed hand to himself, to me, to Riven. The magic insulates me from the cold. Erevis removes his cloak and places it around me. He takes me by the shoulders, looks me in the eyes, and shouts something, but I cannot make it out. I hear only the damned and wind and glaciers and the echo of my father's voice. I am distant from events, outside myself.

He sees my despair and his face shows concern. I don a mask of strength and nod to assuage him. Seemingly satisfied, he pats my shoulder and turns, weapon ready, to search the desolation for my father.

I do the same, squinting into the wind but dreading what I will see.

I spot my father first and my breath catches; my heart sinks. I point.

"There," I say, and hear the hopelessness in my voice.

Erevis's and Riven's gazes follow my upraised arm. When they see him, both go still.

"Gods," Erevis says, but I barely hear it. The shadows about him withdraw into his flesh, as if in fear.

Riven says nothing, but his single eye is transfixed, his habitual sneer erased by open-mouthed awe.

Mephistopheles, Archduke of Cania, Lord of Hell-my father-crouches a long bowshot from us atop a hill of ice. The freezing wind blows over his muscular form and pulls ribbons of smoke from his flesh. The smoke swirls into the shapes of tortured forms and screaming mouths before dissipating in the air. His exposed skin glows a soft crimson, as if lit from within. Black fire flares intermittently from his form, cloaks him in evil the way shadows cloak Erevis. He turns to regard us and his eyes-white eyes like mine-fix on us, on me. The full weight of his gaze drives the three of us to our knees.

My father rises and he is as tall as a giant. His cloak flutters in the wind, and the great, tattered black membranes of his wings unfold. His long, coal-colored hair-like mine-whips in the wind. Twin horns, also like mine, protrude from his brow.

I am my father's son. Tears freeze in my eyes and I scrape them away.

Below, the damned see him, too. They point, cower, and wail. He gazes in their direction and they submerge themselves fully in the torturous hellfire rather than fall for long under his baleful gaze. The ice devils raise their hooks and grunt a salute. My father smiles at the suffering, showing his fangs, and returns his gaze to us.

He takes wing in a cloud of snow and smoke and I can only watch.

He is beautiful as he soars into the gray sky and blistering air, terrible and terrifying, a perfect predator.

But his prey is not flesh.

Erevis recovers himself first. He curses, leans on his blade, and climbs to his feet. He clutches the powerful weapon in a shaking hand, eyes on my approaching father, and pulls Riven to his feet.

"On your feet," he says above the wind. "On your damned feet."

Riven wobbles but draws his sabers and nods. His one good eye moves to me, back to my father, back to me. I see the fear in his face. I have never seen it there before.

They each extend a hand to help me stand but I do not respond. I am limp, horrified, awed. They shout for me to rise, try to pull me up by the armpits, but I cannot stand.

They release me, share a look, some words I do not hear. As one they close ranks before me, forming a bulwark between my father and me.

But the only wall that mattered between Mephistopheles and me-the wall in my mind-has already crumbled. I tore it down to save myself from the Source, and the flesh and bravery of my friends is not enough to remake it. The devil within me feels glee at the approach of my sire. The man feels disgust. I stare at the sky, torn, divided.

We are lost.

Erevis shouts at me over his shoulder, and his words penetrate my haze. "Get up, Mags! Do not give him this!"

I look at him, barely comprehending.

Bow says the devil in me.

Rise says the man.

Mephistopheles swoops in the air, prolonging his approach, letting the fear build.

"Cale…" Riven says to Erevis, his eye on my father.

"I know," Erevis snaps. Shadows ooze from his flesh and swirl closely about him. "But we hold this ground. Understood?" He thumps Riven on the shoulder. "This ground is ours."

"It's only ground, Cale," Riven says. "We can leave it."

Erevis shakes his head. "We cannot. The shadows do not answer me here. I cannot take us out."

Erevis's god is not lord in Cania. My father is.

Riven goes still and stares at Cale for a moment. He knows there is no escape. He looks back at me, at Cale, up at my father.

I see the resolve harden in him. He is as much ice as Cania.

I am awed by more than merely my father.

I have seen my friends stand together before, the First and Second of Mask. I watched Erevis drive his thumbs into the braincase of a death slaad. I have seen Riven's blades move so fast they whistled. I know they are not normal men; normal men would still be on all fours on the ice, awaiting death.

But I know, too, that they are no match for the Lord of Cania.

Each beat of my father's wings looses smoke into the air. As he nears us, the tattoo on my biceps-a red hand sheathed in flames, the symbol of my father-stings my flesh. Smoke rises from my arm. I do not need to look at it to know that the flames are swirling on my skin. Mephistopheles has marked me and I am his.

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