A Devil in the Details

K. A. Stewart


There’s a certain sound the human head makes when it hits the trunk of a tree. Meatier than a “crack”; not quite as hollow as a “thunk”-it’s unmistakable. And when it’s my head, I tend to take offense.

I leaned against said tree and glared at my opponent until my double vision returned to single and the world swam back into focus. “That one’s gonna cost you, Crabby.” If looks could kill… well, first off, my life would be a lot easier.

On the other side of the clearing, what looked to be a mutant crab-scorpion crossbreed rattled and hissed at me in annoyance as it tried to wipe the thrown dirt out of its stalky eyes. The silver light gleamed off its knobby black shell, giving it a metallic sheen. Its right pincer, large enough to neatly sever my thigh, clicked and clacked loudly. A drop of venom hovered at the tip of its thick segmented tail, the dangerous appendage arching high over its back and weaving like a snake in thrall.

Taking a deep breath, I tossed my thick braid back over my shoulder, out of reach of grasping nasty things, and adjusted my grip on my sword. My breath and the cold night air combined to create frost in my beard, and I wiped it away with my free hand, flinging aside the pellets of ice. The crab creature got its vision cleared and gave a threatening stab of its tail in my direction.

Now, I’m a believer in the power of positive thinking, but do you ever just have a sneaking suspicion you’re not winning?

The distant whump-whump-whump of a helicopter broke the silence as it patrolled the camp’s perimeter and kept the paparazzi and innocent bystanders at bay. Any sane person or animal had long since fled the chill and the noise, which left just me and my definitely questionable grip on reality. The full moon was up in the sky somewhere, casting the world in blue-white serenity, while down here under the tree canopy I did the tango with… that.

What I had here was a class-two Scuttle demon, the category so named (by me) for the way they… well… scuttled. Only one rung up from primordial ooze on the demonic ladder, most times they were easily confused and taunted into carelessness. None of them would ever be a candidate for Mensa.

Lack of intelligence didn’t mean lack of speed, however, or lack of armor. I was having a helluva time getting past that thick carapace. My blade already held quite a few nasty nicks from the attempts. Marty was going to kill me for hurting one of his precious swords.

Still, the crab-demon had a few wounds. Intangible dark energy, which passed for blood amongst demonkind, slithered across the forest floor with eerie sentience, coalescing into a ball of black nothingness behind the creature. I’d heard that essence called void-blood, nether-essence, or some other poetic-sounding crap. To me, it was just blight, and it would suck the life out of whatever it touched.

I gave the demon the universal “Come get some” gesture and pushed off the tree to resume a fighting stance. The crab scuttled left, testing me, and I carefully placed my feet on the uneven terrain as I shifted right. It was impossible to feel my way through the thick soles of my boots, and I couldn’t afford to take my eyes off the demon. My armor jingled faintly, sounding like macabre sleigh bells, and the crab hissed and snapped its pincers in return. Not for the first time, I questioned the wisdom of wearing only chain mail and leather for protection. I’d found that I simply could not move well enough if I added plates to it, but was mobility worth it if I couldn’t stop a crushing blow?

Lightning quick, the demon charged, spiny feet carrying it across the clearing in an explosive crackle of dead pine needles. At the last second, I calmly side-stepped right, avoiding the massive claw and dodging the poisonous stinger, bringing my sword down at the juncture of one chitinous leg. The twiggy limb snapped with a gunshot report, and the crab- demon screamed in inhuman outrage. The severed leg dissolved, and dark energy poured from the wound, billowing into the night air to join the rest that had escaped. Slowly it began to swirl, forming the beginnings of a portal.

You don’t really kill demons. You can only wear them down until they lose the strength to hold on to this plane. Thanks to the crab’s armored form, the fight had already gone on longer than I would have liked, and the trick would be to see which one of us was going to tire first. Next time-if there was a next time-I hoped for a fluffy bunny demon, something pink and easily dispatched.

I let my momentum carry me past and away like flowing water, again finding myself across the clearing. Now, I’m a fairly athletic man in the prime of my life, but we’d been at this for the better part of forty-five minutes, and the running back and forth all night was getting old. “Come on, Crabby. I’m too old to play tag.”

The Scuttle demon limped in awkward circles for a moment, as if the now- missing leg had been the rudder keeping it on a straight path. Its eyestalks swiveled to keep me in sight, and it chittered something furious at me. I’d reduced it to babbling. It wasn’t even bothering to speak English in its fury.

The next charge wasn’t quite so coordinated. Twice on that pass, my katana glanced harmlessly off the black shell with a jarring clang. I felt it all the way to my shoulders. As I moved to spin away from the tail again, the demon whirled and slammed that massive pincer into my left hip. I went tumbling head over heels into the leafy forest litter, barely managing to keep my sword. The pungent smell of crushed pine needles filled the air.

It wasn’t broken. Broken hips happen to old people, not to strapping young men of thirty… -ish. But it was going to bruise, and I could feel links of chain digging through my jeans and into my skin where the padding beneath gaped. I didn’t have time to ponder the state of my armor or the severity of my injury. I didn’t even have time to get up off the ground.

Crabby barreled over me, screeching at the top of its… lungs? There was no strategy to its attack. It had succumbed to rage, flailing wildly as it tried to stampede me. I could only curl up and try to protect my poor head. Even so, my braid caught on a spur of carapace, wrenching my neck despite my efforts. I aimed a kick at one leg, trying to make it list harder to port. In retaliation, one of those spiny appendages speared straight through my right calf like a shish kebab. I’m not ashamed to admit I screamed. The crab howled, too, triumphant.

Funny how you can notice key things when you’re about to be skewered by a tap-dancing crab-demon- important things, such as how soft and squishy the underside of the thing looked. Its belly was silvery gray, and pulsated with every grotesque movement. In fact, it looked rather like the raw oysters I’d eaten at a black-tie gathering a few years ago. Yeah, I wouldn’t be eating those again.

I consider myself a philosopher, an educated man. But there are times when learning and culture are simply not applicable. And should you ever find yourself being trampled by a demonic crustacean, when in doubt, stab the squishy spot.

Apparently, Crabby didn’t have eyes on its underside, because it was having a hard time finding me, all tangled up under its legs. And while I was safe from the stinging tail, I was still in real danger of being bludgeoned into mush. A joint cracked against my head as I tried to squirm enough to reach my boot, and colorful streamers darted past my eyes for a moment. My katana was all but useless in close quarters. This is why I carry a plain old skinning knife in my right boot. It may not be pretty; it may not be elegant; but the pointy end goes into the other guy, and that is all I need.

With both hands, I slammed the blade in up to the hilt, then did a little jerk and wiggle for good measure. Instead of oozing, wriggling innards, blight poured out over my hands, which instantly went numb clear to the elbow. I lost my grip on my knife in the frantic roll to keep the void energy from touching my face and chest. Deep in some primitive, instinctive place, I knew that stuff would kill me if I let it wash over me, and no amount of training can erase the first primal imperative to survive.

The crab-demon shrieked and spasmed above me, losing all interest in pursuing an attack. Staggering first one way, then another, it jibbered and chattered in some pitch approaching supersonic. There was no mistaking the sound of abject terror, even in some language I would never understand.

It occurred to me, perhaps a bit late, that being under the thing in its death throes was not wise. I took the easy exit on hands and knees, out through the hole left by the missing leg, not too proud to scuttle myself when the situation called for it.

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