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The rough stone altar was cold and damp under the young woman's naked flesh. Her blood soaked the ropes that held her spread-eagled on the altar, binding her as she struggled to free herself. Suddenly, her tormentor returned to finish the taskhe had begun. His black robes and hood hid him in the shadows as mist cloaked the scene. The dark-haired beauty longed to give voice to her terror, but she was gagged and helpless. Her persecutor had spent the past hour violating her repeatedly, and now intended to finish his work and her life. A flame-shaped dagger glinted in his hand. In an ancient tongue, the cloaked villain mouthed an incantation. Then he raised the ceremonial blade like a dragon's tooth over the woman's heaving bosom, and readied himself for the sacrifice to Belial, his patron god.
Amanda Stewart's long blonde hair whipped about her face in the chill night wind. Sweat glistened from her comely face and ran in rivulets to soak her tattered halter-top. Her shapely legs pumped wildly beneath the ragged remains of her navy mini-skirt. The underbrush slashed at her ankles as the rocky ground punished her naked feet. She was thankful to have escaped, but her life was still at risk. She fled without direction through the benighted Canadian woodlands, trying to outdistance her pursuer.
She reached the bottom of a grade and started across a wooded stretch of terrain. A root caught her right foot and she fell forward, striking the ground hard and twisting her ankle. Looking back over her shoulder, she could make out a shadowy shape circling above the treetops. She could sense those evil, glowing eyes scouring the countryside for her. She stifled a cry and laycompletely still until it passed. She was terrified because she knew that her pursuer was not of this world.
Ta-lon dared not wait any longer to show himself. He had tracked his adversary all night. Having now scoured his campsite for any sign of accomplices, he was certain that he was alone with the adversary and his intended victim. The woman was his betrothed, Lady Sapphire of Alta. The noblewoman had abandoned all of her Atlantean luxury for Ta-lon and his rebel cause. As the High Priest of Belial readied himself to plunge the blade into his intended victim, Ta-lon stepped out of the shadows and called out, "Ramthar!" aiming his notched arrow at the priest's chest.
Ramthar lowered his weapon. Then before Ta-lon could react, the blade was quickly repositioned across the young woman's throat. A trickle of blood seeped from the fresh wound as the woman tensed. Ramthar then responded, "Your lovely mate will die if you slay me."
Ta-lon released the tension on his longbow. "Cut her loose and you will survive this night."
"Oh, I have no doubt of that. Loose your arrow at the creature that has just been summoned into this world by incantation and the shed blood of your woman. If your aim is true, you can cut her free yourself. If not, the creature cares not whether it devours her alive or dead. Perhaps you should bury your shaft in her heart, before Belial's demon feasts."
The misty night air began to shimmer weirdly ten feet above the altar. Ta-lon's eyes widened and the hair on the back of his neck began to rise like a bird's hackles. Ramthar slipped away unnoticed as the creature began to take shape. It was the size of a human, but had the shape of a bat. Black talons at the ends of its wings and feet glistened in the light of the altar torch. Its large red eyes stared directly into Ta-lon's soul, the unmistakable glint of cunning intelligence freezing the hunter in his tracks. He'd only have time for one shot.
Amanda was on the edge of hysteria. It took all of her strength to calm down enough to survey her surroundings. Far to her left, light was beginning to filter over the rolling countryside. She looked straight ahead. As she recalled, the nearest town was in that general direction, the four corners town of Oxtongue Lake. There was no sign of any outlying buildings. She couldn't tell how much further she had to travel. Off to her left, she could now hear the slight rumble of traffic over the pounding of her heart. Her best guess was Highway #60. She set out in that direction limping on her twisted ankle, staying under the cover of the sheltering trees and brush, realizing that any moment the creature may spot her and plunge its deadly talons into her unprotected back.
Ta-lon loosed his arrow, aiming just below those evil, glowing eyes. The shaft found its target and the hellspawn screeched in pain. Abandoning its dinner, as she writhed in terror on the altar below, the creature swooped down at the hunter with unnatural speed. Ta-lon quickly notched another arrow, but those deadly claws were already too close for a bowshot. Ta-lon swung the bow like a club, striking the creature on the side of its horned head and cracking his bow in the process. The bat-winged demon narrowly missed the row of tree trunks immediately behind Ta-lon and veered up and away from the hunter. Ta-lon took full advantage of the creature's confusion and covered the distance to the altar with five hurried strides. He quickly cut the girl free and told her to run and not to look back. He then prepared to face the enraged creature once again. Leaping onto the blood-soaked altar, he tore the torch from its bracket and turned it into a makeshift weapon as the hysterical woman dashed headlong into the shadow-soaked woods.
Ben Parker was fighting to stay awake at the wheel, as he reviewed his less than fulfilling life. He worked his way through college as a commercial photographer. Unfortunately, none of his photography assignments involved scantily clad models. Home & Outdoors Magazine did not feel inclined to use sexy women to promote its rather tame subject matter. His most exciting and challenging project involved time-lapse photography demonstrating the growth curve of domestic flowering plants. He finished at the top of his class in journalism at Ryerson. His father and mother missed his graduation because of a boating accident that left his father in a wheelchair for life. He had to beg for a job as a photojournalist at the Herald in his hometown of Huntsville, after his dreams of a job with a large metropolitan newspaper evaporated. Downsizing was the name of the game, and opportunities were few and far between. His last girlfriend left him for a tennis pro. His early model Chrysler sounded like it was on its last legs. And he'd just spent the night traveling to Ottawa and back to interview a politician who didn't even have the decency to show up. When would his lousy luck change? All he needed was one break, an exclusive story that would interest a wider audience than the Herald's seasonal readership, one break that would open some doors.
Ben narrowed his vision as a camper came barreling over a rise with its highbeams stabbing into the young reporter's eyes. He held to the road, but was momentarily blinded. He cursed the other driver to vent his frustration. Then there was a figure in the road in front of his car. He blinked to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. Then he slammed on his brakes as hard as he could.
There, in the middle of the road, fully illuminated in his headlights, was a half-naked woman. Her face, framed by tousled blonde hair, was pretty in spite of the dirt that smudged her cheeks. She was covered in blood and grime. She waved her arms frantically to flag down the speeding vehicle.
Ben's car slid to rest as the young woman limped to the driver's door. She pleaded for him to take her out of there. Ben complied. As she slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door, Ben stomped on the accelerator and the car lurched into motion. The girl's eyes, widened with terror, stared back from where she had come.
"You look like you've just seen a ghost. What are you doing out here at this ungodly hour?" Ben tried to sound calm, but her fear was becoming contagious.
"It's a demon," she breathed, the words racing from her lips. "Conjured into this world to devour body and soul. If it catches us, we're dead. Can't you go any faster?"
Ben put the pedal to the metal and they hurtled forward. "Relax. If you could outrun it on foot, it'll never be able to catch the car." This appeared to give her some comfort.
Amanda glanced toward the driver for the first time. He looked away, but she noticed he had been admiring her legs where they were displayed below her tattered skirt. "Thank you for stopping. I must look like something the cat dragged in." Her fingers combed her bleached tresses back from her face.
"Not at all." Ben's luck was changing. Sure his old Chrysler was speeding down the road out of inherited fear. He was still dead tired and would probably now have to fill out a police report before he headed home. But he did have a lovely young lady in his car who might have a newsworthy, although weird, story to tell. His reporter's persona kicked in. "Where exactly were you coming from, and where did this thing come from that's following you?" Amanda shot a fearful glance towards the rear window. "Sorry," he said. "The thing that was, but is no longer, following you."
"I don't know what it was," she said. "I'm Amanda Stewart. My friends call me Mandy. I'm attending college in Toronto."
"You said it was a demon from out of this world. Do you believe that?"
Amanda was starting to shiver in the cool night air, now that the adrenaline had stopped pumping. Ben flicked on the heater, and waited for her response. "Did I say that? I was out of my mind. Probably just an owl, but I was so scared, you know, being alone and all." They were approaching the population sign for Oxtongue Lake. "You can leave me here. I'll phone my uncle to pick me up."
Ben's luck changed back to bad. "Are you sure? I'm going into Huntsville. It's a much bigger town. I'd feel safer taking you there."
"I guess I would be more comfortable in a larger town--some place where I can get Uncle Kyle to wire some cash so I can expand my wardrobe."
"Great," Ben said. "And you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"Ben. Ben Parker."