This story by Adam Murton was one of two highly commended for its voice and viewpoint in the 2020 Antares Action Fiction Competition.
The demons came.
Burning-Sky, First of the hunters, felt his breath catch in his throat, as the inhuman beasts charged. His war-party readied their weapons, six mag-guns tracking the closest pack of creatures. ‘Steady men.’ He called. ‘Hold… hold.’
The demons raced across the clearing. Each ran on six limbs and they thundered across the dry earth. The Freeborn Lords in their mighty heaven-ships might call the Tsan Ra aliens, but Burning-Sky and his hunting party knew the truth: they were clearly demons. He also knew they had to stop the Isorians building their infernal-machines, apparently they would flood the world with tiny imps that would rebuild the planet Dulph in the Isorian image.
Burning Sky looked at the strange creatures and shuddered at the thought. He waited until he could see the many eyes in their spider-like heads, then he took a single steadying breath, before giving the order. ‘Fire.’
The mag-guns whined beside him. One demon fell as three sharp metal rounds pierced what passed for its body. Burning-Sky’s own plasma blast struck an inhuman head. The helmet melted and steaming droplets dripped from the blast-wound, even as it toppled forward. The other two charged on, eager to get up close where their strength, extra limbs and their bizarre shoulder-weapons would give them the advantage.
Burning-Sky was determined that would never happen. ‘Fall back firing.’ He instructed in a whisper, relying on the Freeborn’s device to carry his words over the demons’ thunderous hooves. As one the hunting party stepped back and fired, shredding the two survivors of the closest demon pack. They fell in a tangle of odd-looking limbs, revealing three more packs of charging demons, ready to tear the hunters limb from limb.
Still, they walked backwards: this was not an easy task over the uneven ground. Each foot had to be carefully placed. The desire to flick a glance back was strong, but the demon creatures were nearly upon them. The hunters kept up a steady stream of mag-fire. A wounded demon ran on through the cloud of mag-fire, pressing ever closer. Mag-rounds ripped into its shell. Finally overcome, it collapsed but as it fell it fired off its yoke weapon. Caught in the blast Dark-Wing distorted horrifically before splitting apart with a gush of blood. Burning-Sky had grown up with Dark-Wing: they had shared their first hunt together and now he had shared Dark-Wing’s last hunt.
Burning-Sky swallowed and kept firing, there were nine demons nearly on top of them. Another yoke weapon fired and another hunter ruptured. This time, Shining-Horn collapsed in a distorted and bloody mess. He had had the filthiest sense of humour. Burning-Sky felt undergrowth beneath his boot and knew it was time. They had reached the edge of the forest and the Demons were so close. Burning-Sky smiled.
‘Now!’ Burning-Sky shouted. The woods around them erupted. Three mag light support crews had lain concealed among the trybo-bushes; now, they fired. Large rounds shredded the leaves as they headed towards the demons caught out in the open. They tore into and through the Tsan Ra, felling them like saplings in a storm. The creatures tumbled and skidded to a halt. A few demons at the back turned to run, their many legs twisting beneath them, even as more rounds slammed into them, Burning-Sky bowed his head briefly to honour Dark-Wing and Sharp-Horn’s sacrifice, but he kept firing.
If you enjoyed this story, the overview page with links to all the winners can be found here.