The Children’s Crusade

This story originally appeared in The Crimson Pact Vol 4

Well, this is new.’ I think, sliding into my body.
This far into the Crusade, I had assumed the centuries of fighting had anesthetized me against surprise. Because I’ve fought them in every way imaginable: with steam-driven city sized metal suits, with blood runes and automatic weaponry. I’ve worn so many skins that sometimes I have trouble remembering what I looked like when I signed the Crimson Pact to chase the Demons of the Rusted Vale wherever they might flee, even to other worlds. I’ve triumphed and failed, sacrificed millions and watched worlds die…

But I’ve never before had to fight them in the skin of a three year old boy.
Bits of knowledge bubble up into me. I’ am at Day Care. I’ am named Billy. I’ am almost four. There’s more, a kaleidoscope of images and emotions that don’t quite make sense so I focus on the essentials: Billy, Day Care, Three Years old… got it.

Since there doesn’t appear to be any immediate danger, I reach out with my senses; sifting the disturbed aether for any recent arrivals.

Good news–there’s only one demon on this world. Bad News–I’m the only Oath Taker. Worse, the demon is here, in this room. Following the path through the aether, I can see it’s riding Ms. Pinning: My’ teacher.
Praise the innumerable Gods we learned to mask our presence from them, because if it knew I was here it’d drop all pretense to throttle me and escape. I watch as the demon tries to get its bearings, figure out where this world fits on the magical/technological spectrum.
One of the other children, Fran, walks up to the thing and tugs on its skirt. GO AWAY!” The demon snarls, drawing back its hand to slap. The child cowers, starts bawling. Thinking better of it, the demon lowers its hand and says. GO… go play with the others.”
I toddle off and find an obscured corner. Casting a backwards glance at the demon, I try a few simple spells to see how magic will function here: hand chakra, rune tracing, the true name of the elements. Everything works, barely. Low magic world, though the building suggests technological advancement.

Options: I can wait to grow up, amass the resources and strength I’d need to kill the demon. Depending on social norms that might take a decade, maybe longer. And it’s not going to be content here; by then the thing will have abandoned this role and wormed its way towards power. If I wait, this world will suffer, perhaps irreparably. Alternately, I can strike now, while it’s still off balance. But I’ve never been weaker… I weigh maybe a stone and a half and the demon has to be five times that. There’s no obvious weapons here; everything around me is blunted and dull and made safe.
Biting my lip, I decide it’s worth the risk. Gods help this world if I fail. Tracing runes in the air, I turn; call the true name for lightning.
Arcs of power explode from a space above my hands and connect to Ms. Pinning’s forehead. She falls backward, one eye bubbling out of its socket.

It’s not enough.

The lightning here is unused, unready to being called and responds only a half again as much as I needed. The demon staggers upright, screaming I’m going to rip out your throat Crusader!” in its own hissing tongue.

I duck away from the blast of ice, almost stumbling over my awkward legs. It’s seen me, knows me for what I am. Chanting something low, the ‘Ms. Pinning’ stalks towards me.
I call for fire, nothing responds. The demon’s suppressing the powers, a simple trick on worlds like this. It’s gonna use its size to overpower me.
Casting about for something, anything to aid me all I see is the too large, terrified eyes of children. But I’ve learned to use what tools are given. Help me! She’s gonna to kill me!” I yell.

The demon might be suppressing the elemental forces, but it can’t stop me from reaching out with my will to ready spirits. I pluck at every strand of young fear and hate in the children around me.
It takes little to convince them that Ms. Pinning’ is wrong, a monster… they all sense instinctively. But it takes more effort to convince them to fight, makes my head throb.

I push harder.
But the wave breaks when the first child, Fran, runs towards Ms Pinning.’ The other children follow. The demon kicks and punches, but I’m in their heads urging them onward. With sheer numbers they wrap her legs, make her stagger as they sink teeth into her calves.

Blackened eye still smoking, the monster’s chant shifts. It sings to its flesh, stretching nails into talons. With foot long claws it slices down, cutting and killing them. Blood splashes onto the gray carpet.

I shift my focus, leave the children to their sudden, all encompassing terror.
“Rarn’Ak” I shout again, shaping the arc as tight as possible.
A crackle pierces the center of the demon’s head. It falls mid swipe, body dead and already reverting to its original form.

Children keen all around me. I rush about, singing to heal the survivors and ignoring the half dozen corpses littering the room. I hear commotion from outside as the void begins to tug at me.

The demon’s spirit has drifted off in search of a new world, and I must follow.
I’m sorry Billy, I can’t imagine you’ll have a pleasant life after this. I’m sorry Fran and Jimmy and Beth: you’re just another sacrifice to the cause, another burnt offering to the Crimson Pact…

I have to believe you’d thank me if you only understood.

Then the void overwhelms me, rips me out of Billy to shove me into another skin on another world…

So I can do it all over again.

The End

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