“Taldarion, if you are about to do something stupid, we are going to have to throw you like we did that demon,” Fethas snarled.
“Stupid, Fethas? When have you ever worried about me being stupid? You know me better than that.” Ushering her quickly through the closing door, Taldarion called ahead to his mate. “Remember, love. Find Greyseer. Stop the ritual.” He turned back and spoke to himself more softly. “I have a bomb to fix.”
Then the door closed between them, and he was alone with an unconscious demon lord.
-Abrogation minus five minutes-
The voice that emanated from the device was not Ary’s, which was good. Hearing her voice from the vessel itself had become a little too unnerving. It was surprisingly welcome to hear a complete stranger countdown his doom.
Taldarion dared to peer at the subdued Sraath. The demon lord was still unconscious. That was also good. It meant that he still had time. He could get this thing fixed and find another way out of this chamber.
He needed to focus on the device itself, though, not at the demonic form nearby. Though he was no magus nor engineer, it was not difficult to notice the problem. The sigil of flame, layered and augmented to increase its power over a hundred-fold, had been ruined. The explosive would not trigger unless it received an infusion of concentrated felfire at just the exact moment, and the countdown had already begun.
Taldarion wondered if the damage had occurred during the altercation with Sraath, or if the demons from the House of Gis might have intentionally sabotaged their own work. In the end, it mattered little. Taldarion was out of options and quickly running out of time. The whole purpose of the mission was in jeopardy--without the device, Sraath’s ritual of apotheosis would reach fruition. To weaken the demon and stop his plan, it needed to be triggered.
The demon had lived for countless millennia, rising through the ranks of the Shadowed Sun and claiming world after world for the Burning Legion. No, not for the Legion. For himself. With each fallen world, his armies--his power--had grown. Taldarion had seen it--had seen the myriad of timelines through forced visions--and in each one the Lord of Eclipse lead the Shadowed Sun to victory over the mortal realms.
The demon lord rose to his hooves in a furious rage, the wisps of shadow around him having healed the wounds inflicted during the battle. Shadowflesh had even grown out from the stump that was his severed tail, once again completing the demon lord’s silhouette. His bellow caused the Umbral Eclipse to rumble, and Taldarion thought he heard more bulkheads shutter themselves in the distance, perhaps shaken loose by Sraath’s rage.
How long now had the Netherbane been a thorn in his side? How long had they been an obstacle in his path? Taldarion knew the thoughts that flowed through the anger-clouded mind of the creature in the center of the room: Destroy the Netherbane. Crucify Eraelan. Eradicate his pupil, Tharion Greyseer. Burn all traces of those who carry that hated name.
Sraath stumbled to a nearby console and it whirred to life at his touch. A single blip in the corner told Sraath what Taldarion hoped it would not: that the demon was not alone in here.
“Where are you, little mortal?” Sraath asked without turning around. “Come out and die, like so many of Eraelan’s followers before you. Like so many will after you.”
At the far end of the room, Taldarion emerged, a look of controlled contempt on his face. The Greyseer’s words echoed in his mind: I seek not followers, only equals.
“I am no follower.”
Sraath laughed. “No? Then are you leading yourself into death?” He closed the distance between with great strides, monologuing as he went. “You mortals, always so wasteful, even with your own souls. Do you know how many worlds have fallen before me? How many souls I have bent to my will over the eons? And you believe you can stop me, alone?”
A slow smile curled across Taldarion’s’s mouth as he removed his leather mask and faced the demon directly. "This one is never alone.”
Enraged, Sraath rushed towards the demon hunter with his void-wrought sword, drawn once more from the nothingness around him. Taldarion cocked his head to one side and bared his teeth, holding his hands into the air at his sides. All at once, a pair of savage swords appeared in his hands. Though they had not seen battle in some years, the demon hunter held them with the firm grip of a master swordsman.
Metal clashed against metal as Sraath swung his monstrous weapon back and forth at Taldarion. The demon hunter deflected each attack, being pushed back with each blow. Before he reached the edge of the chamber, however, he went on the offensive. Sraath was surprised at his speed. The wall at Taldarion’s back, almost a disadvantage, became a springboard. The ceiling, another. When Taldarion’s swords bit into Sraath’s armor, the demon lord roared in unexpected pain.
Intense cold issued forth from the demon hunter’s blades in tendrils, reaching through armor and flesh. When Taldarion pulled the weapons away, something from within the demon lord, ethereal and translucent, came with it. Sraath stumbled backwards from the attack and locked his gaze on the demon hunter. He thought he saw fear in the demon’s eyes.
“So you can feel it,” Taldarion said as he held the swords before Sraath. “The Twinblades of Kal’zaram. The swords that ended your former master, Xonath. They seem to have acquired his ability to draw souls from his victims, haven’t they? I wondered how they might fare against you.”
The demon laughed, but it was unsteady. “Ah, so you are the Shatterbound. Word reached me long ago of your victory over that old fool. You think that he actually compares to me?”
Taldarion held the swords aloft. Again invisible tendrils reached through Sraath’s armor and chest. Again they threatened to pull his essence from his form.
Sraath stumbled, but immediately straightened himself, as if taunting the blades to do their worst. “Your weapons try to drink from an endless ocean, demon hunter. If this is all you can muster, then you are already dead.”
Spinning one of the swords, Taldarion took the hilt in a backhand grip. “I do not fear death, demon. Tell me, though--do you fear to lose your soul? After all, you’ve taken so many...”
Sraath laughed, almost in joy, and again, demon and hunter clashed.
Taldarion was running out of options. Even the added threat of Kal’Zaram had done little to slow the demon’s furious assault. Though the swords bit deep, Sraath’s soulshaping abilities allowed him to counter each blow. And Sraath had given as well as he’d received. Time and again, his demonic blade had slashed through Taldarion’s armor, tearing apart reinforced leather and flesh alike.
There was only one option left to Taldarion now, and the demon hunter knew what it meant. He thought of Shizukera, and her sweet smile and mad purring. He thought of Zadera and her willful defiance of the world around her. He even thought of Fethas and her warning threats.
Yeah, he thought to himself, you do know me better than that, don’t you?
Summoning what strength he had left, Taldarion threw himself at Sraath, blades crossed to strike with a vicious slash. But the demon was faster, and Taldarion screamed as Sraath’s sword tore through his armor and deep into his stomach. Eyes wild, the demon shifted his weight and yanked the blade upward, opening a wide tear through armor, flesh, and bone.
“Will I add your soul to my collection next, demon hunter?” The demon whispered as he stepped back, his cracked weapon dripping with glowing fel-blood.
Taldarion crumpled to his hands and knees. He struggled to look up at Sraath, felfire burning where his eyes had once been. Then the myriad cuts and gashes venting the demon hunter’s body began to glow with the same greenish flame. Skin blackened and bubbled. Hair burned. In seconds, he was engulfed in flame. As the immolated carcass fell away, a new creature rose from the ashes. Huge and demonic, with a form made of darkness and flame, the thing never looked away from the frowning demon lord.
It spoke, but not in a single voice. The sound was of many. The chorus resonated through the chamber in a chuckle of casual victory. “When the choice was made to follow the path of the demon hunter, the binding rituals were incomplete. Imperfect.The demon souls would be drained of all power, of all effect. And so another was bound. And another. Too many to count over time.”
Taldarion pointed to the ashes on the ground as he continued, ”This one feared losing himself to the whispers. But so long as they could be controlled, each bind brought more power to command. The shattered souls of so many of your kind, bound together into pure fel. And now? Now you face them all, demon.”
Sraath’s mouth parted, and he inhaled deeply, as if tasting something exquisite. “So many within one. It is impressive, hunter. Perhaps in a different time--a different place--you could have joined me as one of my chosen. There is so much material within you that can be reshaped. So much...potential.”
Taldarion’s only response was to stare.
Sraath laughed at his own thought and then exploded in a renewed assault. He threw himself against the demon hunter before him, swinging his void-blade in an effort to cut him down.
Something was different, however. Every time Sraath attacked, Taldarion evaded. Sraath’s weapon crashed into the floor, splintering fel-steel plating where the demon hunter had been an instant before. This continued for what seemed like far too long, until realization dawned upon the demon lord.
“You are too afraid to fight me now?” Sraath asked in amusement. “You believe this a game? The more time you waste, mortal, the closer my ritual approaches to completion.”
Even in his fiery form, Taldarion’s smile was recognizable. He backed across the room wordlessly, then reached into the mass of discarded panels and twisted metal at his feet. With one burning hand, he dragged the device out from where it lay hidden. “You thought this a duel? Then your madness truly knows no limits. Only a fool would engage you one-on-one.”
Sraath’s eyes narrowed.
Taldarion continued. “I should thank you, that I should. By forcing this one to transform, you unlocked the power I needed to activate this.”
Sraath’s wild eyes danced with laughter. “A bomb? I have survived much worse than a bomb, you know, and I will do so again. But you--you’ll never get away in time. You will simply die here, alone.”
Taldarion placed his other hand on the device. “I told you, Sraath. I don’t fear death. It is merely one more sacrifice out of many. Tell me, what happens to all those souls you’ve been collecting when this goes off? What happens to your ship? What happens to you? When I am done, you will have nothing left.”
“You choose to die here, demon hunter? You choose to sacrifice yourself in the vain hope that this...thing...will be able to stop me? What can you hope to achieve alone?”
Slowly, Taldarion began to merge the device into the fel flames constituting his demonic form. As if responding to the missing trigger, the sigils glowed back to vibrant life. Taldarion was not surprised to see the countdown timer begin to flash.
It was time.
“No,” Taldarion responded. “Not me, alone. When Poeryth took Sunbreaker from you, your facade cracked. When Elishtar took your tail, your dignity crumbled. When Fethas smashed one of your minions over your broken body, you became nothing to us. The Netherbane does not hunt alone. Each of us contributes to the whole. Each of us is given a piece of this victory. They will be like me--separate pieces brought together for a common goal. Veldrinas and Zadera. Kharendos, Zhuriel, and Poeryth. Raelias and Garikhan. Elithe. Araatris--both Darkwatcher and Ary. Elishtar and Fethas. Shizukera. Tharion Greyseer. Eraelan Netherbane. They,” Taldarion said as the bomb started to glow, “will be Shatterbound. And they will be your end.”
Sraath roared and charged the demon hunter, his void-cracked blade raised for one final blow.
A blinding light filled the chamber, evaporating walls and shearing metal. As Sraath’s shadowforged weapon descended upon Taldarion, it disintegrated, breaking apart into shards of fel, steel, and darkness. The Umbral Eclipse shuddered again, and then it began to break apart as well. The disjointed components of the vessel, each one for millennia fused into a single whole, began to separate.