Screams. A nightmare? Selena blinked. That was one hell of a way to wake up. Zoe was already awake, looking at her, shivering as if it was cold, her eyes wide as saucers. Another agonized wail echoed between the mountains. That was not a nightmare.
Selena rushed outside, to the riverbank. Gulped at the sight before her, surprisingly close. On the other side of the river, between the castle and the hamlet. And more importantly, right behind the bridge, cutting off any escape.
Grey-skinned humanoids, vile and demonic in nature. Far too many.
The most terrifying creature was whatever that led the army, or at least this part of it. It was vaguely humanoid, wielding some kind of accursed hook in one hand and an chaotically shaped brown shield in his other, with a more or less round hole in the middle. His head was everything but human, white and deformed and with a colossal predatory grin marring it that seemed to take up its entire face.
Smaller creatures lingered behind it, in more or less neat columns. Some of these demonic minions were in the hamlet, and some of the homes were on fire.
The Demonspawn. The Arbiter and her allies had fought against them before... And the horror stories about the demons were endless. People were taken for tribute, torture in ways a Telerian could not imagine, senseless slaughter...
And there was no real escape. The castle where the Aristocrat lived was already doomed if she had not fled before. A wall had been battered down, and demons started to enter the keep. The gatehouse was burning.
Selena looked around. Zoe was quivering behind her, her back pressed against a rock, a stone or two in her hand to defend herself. It was hard to blame her. She was scared as well, but where to run? Where to fight?Would there be help? It was not entirely unlikely. Or was it merely hope? A fever dream, even? In which case she was already dead, she just did not know it yet.
There was not really anywhere to go. The river beneath them blocked most avenues of escape, and if they walked down the slope the demons would be waiting for them the moment they crossed the bridge.
And the demons had seen them too. Their leader was staring at her. And she was staring back. If she had to die, she would not die a coward.
Selena looked around briefly. Maybe they could skirt around. but that was no escape. The creek was rougher than usual due to the recent heavy rain and Selena nor Zoe was able to swim. Maybe there was a place from where they could defend?
Zoe was already sitting behind a rock, holding the heaviest stones she could reasonably throw.
No, this was where they would defend unless she could somehow take the bridge.
She stared at the demon again. Something had shifted in its demeanor. And that beast crossed the bridge in two large strides, and Selena would keep her eyes on him for as long as she could.
And flames leaked from the Aristocrat's castle. Some of the flames tinged purple, an odd colour that natural fire would never have.
Selena steeled herself. Clenched her spear. Focused. The tension in the air was far too heavy. And the leader of the demons charged. There was no time to hide. There was no time to find a place to defend either. No, she had to defend herself here, on a small meadow just behind an orchard and a house with minimal cover at best, and if they positioned themselves poorly, it was a place that would also provide cover to their enemies. Not only that, Selena and Zoe both were completely unarmoured against anything that wasn't a dagger scraping past Selena's gauntlet.
And their training was no better. Zoe was for all intents and purposes untrained. Selena had received some training on fighting in formation, but Elfguards were barely taught how to fight alone. It was more oriented on looking like hardened warriors than actually being one. Selena could say that her biggest advantage over other Elfguards was that she realised that fact and made adjustments in her training schedule for that.
Thankfully the Demonspawn leader seemed to have elected to attack alone and with absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.
Prepared for the fight of her life, spear in both hands. Whatever she was going to fight, it was fast and strong, and much bigger than she was, but it did not look particularly agile. In fact, it seemed to be somewhat stiff. And her superior agility was something to take advantage of. And maybe the demon's personality... if it showed a sign of weaknes there.
But the demon realised something was off, looked around for a second. This was her moment. It was distracted! She rushed forwards, spear pointing straight ahead, The demon reacted, prompting Selena to halt her charge, causing the demon to overcompensate and to stumble forwards. The Elfguard took this opportunity and worked her way inside his guard as she thrusted again, aiming up. But as the demon shoved closer, she shifted her aim for the demon's armpit and managed to drive the spear straight through his skin and muscles and against his collarbone. Growling in fury, the monster lashed out with his other arm, crushing the air out of Selena's lungs with a brutal backhanded blow that knocked her away.
Whimpering, Selena struggled to regain her bearing. That had hurt, though it seemed nothing was actually broken. But why did she feel tired? And why had she seen a shadow? And why was she hearing moans?
Zoe whimpered as the demon bullied her around, kicking and stomping her. He knew the child was at his mercy and decided to delay finishing her off, despite his own injury.
But in his arrogance, the demon had forgotten about her. Had his back faced towards her. Selena did not think twice. She pushed through her pain with a sudden rush of energy, and jumped to grab both horns on the back of his grotesque head. The Demon attempted to knock her away, but his arms could not bend backwards enough to grab her, and Selena's feet found purchase on the creature's upper back. She dragged his head backwards further, before pushing forwards and then pulling backwards again with all her strength.
And with a sickening snap, the demon's neck broke.
"Zoe, are you okay?"
The elven child pushed herself upright, but she still sagged. "Yes. I think so. A few bruises here and there. And really, really tired." She smiled proudly, despite the pain and fatigue she was in. "I nailed his head with a rock before he could finish you off. Are you okay too?"
"I think so." That explained the shadow she saw when she was dazed from the impact. The moans she heard was Zoe. As for the exhaustion, that might be a spell from that demon. "And I think we saved each other's life there..."
"I think we did."
Selena grimaced. "That was far too close." She didn't dare to touch the demon or his weapons if she did not have to. But she did retrieve her own spear. She would need that.
"I can't believe you managed to break his neck."
Selena cast one last look at the large demon. "To be honest... me neither." Her body trembled and she was bloody exhausted from the effort, and even with her weapon back in her hands, she did not know if she could defend herself. "Let's get out of here."
Good point. The bridge is still guarded. And the Demonspawn would soon be looking for their lost commander. And if the demons could see them at any given point, they would know something is amiss. Or maybe they should sit high at a point where the demons could not reach them so easily? "Then we need to find a damn good hiding spot quickly." Selena looked along the rocks, but the mountain was incredibly steep on all sides, and where it wasn't as steep it was usually soaking wet. Also not ideal for climbing... not to mention that any attempt to scale those rocks would leave them horribly exposed. "Or we need to fight our way out."
"Do you expect to be rescued, or do you you expect us to do it ourselves..."
Selena shrugged. "I would expect an army to be near. No one likes these demons. But they have been roaming around for quite some time already." She took Zoe's hand. "But I do not know if we can count on them being near enough." But unless the demons had already routed a the standing armies of the nearby nobles, and she wasn't talking about an useless Aristocrat, but there was a Sacred Order stronghold not too far away, and there might be also more powerful elven nobles on the way with their armies.
"And you can't do it with the other people living here?"
"Well, I am just a simple guard. There is no way I am strong enough to bust my way through an entire division and then some. And while I have you..." Selena elected to not finish her sentence.
"...I am little more than a distraction at best." The child finished. She had put a pair of stones in her pouch, but if she joined the fray that was little more than desperation... "But some neighbours might be able to fight. Some have served during previous demon incursions. I know Constantina was a fencer and fought in several battles. There is also a former marksman of the army..."
The Elfguard smiled briefly. Having allies would be so nice, and they would be much more likely to resist against the demons when one of their leaders was taken out. "That would be good." She paused. "Can you lead the way?"
Zoe forced herself to stand up straight, despite her visible exhaustion. "Sure!" The girl pointed to a house and strided down the slope, the Elfguard following her close behind. She entered without knocking. It was not abandoned, as there were noises coming from the basement.
Selena briefly noted the buckler and the rapier on the wall, unused, but paid them no heed for now. She wanted information, so she clambered upstairs and looked through the small window across the creek. What were those accursed demons doing?
"Selena, what are you doing there?"
"I'm taking a look." Four spear-armed humanoid demons formed a line on the bridge, with two large demonic hounds in front of them. At least six more were in the village, taking some of the inhabitants captive and killing others. Pitspawns, if she remembered correctly, but she did not receive much in the way of education on the individual demons and their capabilities, despite the remours of recent incursions. But she knew two things, and that is that those were weaker demons, and more importantly, that there were a lot of them. She could not see the castle from here, but... most of the demons would likely be around there.
"I don't like your silence," Zoe shouted from below.
"Wise," Selena deadpanned, before turning away. "Constantina, are you here? Are you going to help fighting those demons?"
"Zoe, is that you?" Another voice. A woman? Was that Constantina? "And yes, I am. Give me a moment to finish equipping myself."
It was at that moment that an arrow struck clattered against the stone, sowing confusion among the horned 'men' standing guard. Without their leader, they started arguing in some incomprehensible language, and wherever the archer was, this time he struck one of the men. There were more people who did not want to wait until their lives got taken, and the guard forced a smile on her face. Maybe that person saw Selena kill the larger demon earlier and decided to start his own resistance?
That spurred them into motion, and they crossed the bridge. "They are coming!" Selena immediately hurried back.
"Are you ready, Constantina?" Zoe questioned.
The woman moved out of sight. "Almost! But you can take the spare buckler and rapier on the wall if you need them, I used those before I was promoted."
"Don't mind if we do." Zoe took the silvery buckler and sword from the wall. "Selena, take this, if you know how to use them."
Selena looked at the two items. "Buckler yes, rapier no." She quickly strapped the small round shield around her left arm. She was never trained in its use, but it was an object that could be used to block incoming weapons. "You can wield that rapier, I have my spear."
"Ehr..." Zoe hestitated. "This will probably make me do something stupid." Zoe tested the weapon in her hand. "It's a good weapon, but..."
The woman stepped out of the basement, dressed in silver, red and gold, buckler and rapier in hand. "You are right, ma'am. I will fight at your side." She smiled briefly, but she pointed to the door. "Zoe, are you planning to fight?"
The brunette shook her head. "I will defend myself, but I won't have the illusion that I am more than a distraction at best."
The woman briefly nodded before she followed them outside. "I can approve of that. The battlefield is no place for children. Let's do this... Selena, was it?"
And the demons had their backs turned towards them, looking for the archers. One of the red-skinned hounds was lying dead in the dirt, one of the fiendish men was limping behind with an arrow stuck in his thigh, but the two others were on the hunt. "We need to help him!" The fencer's voice was little more than a whisper, but it was an obvious order that needed no explanation.
A loud howl emaneted from one of the buildings as one of the Fellhouds was hit by an arrow, and Selena decided to take advantage of that particular distraction and rushed forwards, finishing the straggling demon off.
The fencer was right by her side, and took the lead and rushed towards the archer's home, taking out both other demons in a single flourish of her rapier.
"You are a sight for sore eyes!" A grey-haired archer greeted them warmly. "Thanks. Good to see I am not fighting alone. Where is your family?"
Selena grimaced. What was she?
"My husband and children have left a while ago. It's the midst of summer, it's not like I need their help here and it was not exactly safe here."
"Good to hear." The man smiled. "I have been a marksman in my younger days, if you had not figured that out yet." He clambered down from his position. "It's time to put an end to this."
"Hurry!" Zoe shouted. Selena and the fencer quickly took their place in front of the child, noticing a group of four demons rushing towards them.
Yes, come at us in small groups. It is easier that way. Give the archer time to pick some of them off, and those that remain can be cut down. Four quickly became three, and then two.
Selena scanned the nearby orchards for more of those Demonspawn. She was worried some had remained unseen, and one of the hounds from earlier was unaccounted for as far as she knew, but as the distance closed it remained no one joined them, not even as Selena lept forwards, goring one of the demons on the tip of her spear as she drove it right into his stomach, and then again under his collarbone.
Constantina followed up, parrying an attack that the demon managed to force despite his injuries, before lashing out with a brutal riposte that cut the demon right though his throat.
The last demon charged towards the Elfguard, but Selena sidestepped and deflected his spear with the buckler, before she stabbed again from within his guard, impaling him before Constantine struck him with her pommel, dazing the demon for a moment before she drove her rapier deep into his chest.
An arrow whistled overhead and struck one of the red-skinned hellhounds near one of the farms at the edge of the hamlet. "That was an impressive shot!"
"Thanks!" He paused, his breath turning to mist in the cold air. "Hold the bridge for me, so I can thin their ranks from here."
Selena nodded. There were still plenty of demons that were easy pickings, and holding the only access point to the archer would force them to be funneled into a chokepoint or to take shelter in the village. And every enemy that was taken out by an arrow would be one less to deal with later.
Selena and Constantina did exactly that, Zoe following right behind them. The river formed a great natural barrier, especially with the abundant rain from the past week, and kept the marksman safe as he picked off more and more arrows.
"I hope he has enough arrows." Zoe whispered.
Constantina shrugged. "He has more at home. I think."
Selena looked around. The marksman had made little effort to conceal himself, and several more demons his arrows, but many more started to hide in and behind buildings. Which was logical. If anything, it was odd that it had taken this long for them to hide.
"What do we do now?" Selena could not see a single demon anymore, not in the hamlet, but there were still dozens within the various storage buildings, workshops and homes, and she did not even know how many were in and around the castle. If they all elected to rush them together, they would be very dead, very quickly.
"Wait here. See those demons near the castle?" Constantina nodded over to them.
"They can't really swarm us on the bridge, which is too small for us to be outflanked, but the moment we step out we can be attacked from all directions. And the demons, or at least their surviving leaders, know that."
Selena nodded. "That makes sense." That meant that the remaining demons would likely wait until they were the ones to overextend. "And we are the ones that need to eat and sleep at some point. They might too, but there are so many of them that they can just wait."
"Exactly. They know we are forced to make a move at some point." Constantina wrapped an arm around Selena. "I am sorry that you ended up here."
The Elfguard shrugged. "Blame the Royal Guard that sent me here. He thought it was funny to send me rather than go himself to solve this." She grimaced. "And here we are, pinned on a frozen bridge, with people relying on us to survive behind us and even more that we cannot help in front of us." Thankfully they did not have to watch the slaughter that took place as the searched through the outskirts of the village, setting buildings on fire where they went.
A flash of scarlet and silver rose from the burning castle, and something flew out. Whatever it was, it made Selena's hair stand on end. That thing was far too powerful. Was that their leader?
Red-hot debris fell everywhere around the castle, even on this side of the river, setting grass, trees and worst of all, thatched roofs, on fire...
But yet the cold became more pronounced, despite the raging flames.
She could not see who was leading them, or what it was, but it was sending the demons into a frenzy.
It also rallied the last defenders of the village that had hidden in the forest, and swords and armour clashed with the demons, all they heard was screams from elves and screeches from demons. It made Selena nervous. There was a battle going on, and she could do nothing to help. Too much open ground to cross, too many places to be surrounded, not to mention it would leave the archer exposed and their presence here at least made sure the demons had to be wary of an attack from behind and to avoid arrows from the marksman in their attempt to encircle the last surviving villagers.
Then, in a dark shadow, something vaguely humanoid entered a barn on the far side of the hamlet. A demon howled shortly after. Who was that? Selena's eyes were dragged to the building, but whoever that was, it was not important. Selena refocused on her surroundings. Something was making the temperature drop and that probably was not good.
She cast one last glance at Constantina. The fencer nodded. They would fight on this bridge, make this their last stand.
Another bloodcurdling scream. Close by and quickly cut off. From where the marksman was. Selena was afraid to look, but turned anyway. A large feminine demon stood over the elderly elf, his body broken and crushed to a bloody pulp by the large spear that the demon held in her hand. Her skin was scarlet, but covered in some kind of silvery metal armour almost everywhere. It seemed to be made of the same kind of metal as her spear. Her head was humanoid, and large portions of her skull were covered in more of the strange metal. The metal also covered bands of her hair, half a dozen metal long appendages that were longer than she was. And they were rigid and unmoving, just slowly following the motions of the large demon's head, despite their immense weight. Selena did not know what this demon was, but her strength could not be denied.
And she charged, spear first, dark energy sparking around its jagged tip.
Selena, wanting nothing to do with that, sidestepped the spear, but her own spear didn't hit more than one of the silver tendrils as she simply ran past them.
Constantina let out a gargled scream that was quickly cut off.
Selena could just see her hand before the swirling waters of the river had dragged her to the bottom. Growling, Selena lashed out, and her spear glanced off the plates that seemed to be embedded into the demon's chest. This enemy was absolutely formidable, but it had to be brought down. She had to try. She had promised Zoe to keep her safe.
Only to rapidly ducked underneath a wild swing of the demon's spear, now used more like a giant club. Its barbs passed through her hair, but Selena rallied and returned the favour, puncturing the skin of her thigh.
The monster snarled in fury, went for another strike, and Selena barely managed to roll out of the way as the spear slammed into the ground next to her. And again, before the demon swept her spear across the ground, forcing Selena to jump upwards, but the the scarlet monster kicked at Selena's legs, sending her tumbling out of control and landing her on her back.
And at that moment, Selena knew it was over. The unknown demon towered over, spear raised high and with the point down, aiming to impale the elf. She slowly brought it down, aiming at her heart. Slightly to the left of her heart. Selena realised suddenly that the demon wanted to torture her, not kill her immediately,.. Sensing the moment, Selena rolled to her right, somehow dodging, even as the barbs tore her chestpiece to shreds and the spear pierced deep into the soil. The elf rolled back upright in a single motion to face the demon once again,
Just as the demon retrieved her own weapon, a blue light shone overhead.
And Selena felt relief. The maiden in blue, with beautiful crystalline wings, floated overhead. Her ethereal golden armour was absolutely magnificient, and benevolent power radiated from her, despite the snow that slowly drifted away from her. Gliseah Soulguide, the Goddess of Winter...
And she spread her wings, before lashing out with a speed seemed impossible for a being as graceful as the Lightbringer, her golden shield clashing with the silver spear in a shower or sparks. And then she stabbed, an attack that the demon blocked with her skull, but Gliseah just pulled back and then started beating down from above, her crystals shining brightly.
Selena, ignoring the biting cold, rushed forwards, She did not want the deity to fight alone. She would be nothing more than a distraction, but she could maybe land one solid hit with her spear, as Gliseah had taken up the demon's full attention. Selena was almost forgotten, and with that, she got herself behind the demon and throttled her spear into the demon's side, aiming for the scarlet skin. Which it pierced, causing the demon to let out an ear-splitting shriek and flail her head, her tendrils tangling up and shattering Selena's spear and knocking the Elfguard off her feet.
And Gliseah stabbed that abomination in her chest.
Selena breathed a sigh of relief. It was finally over. But the Soulguide remained tense, and Selena took the hint. Fell back, to the side of Zoe. Because the Soulguide knew something Selena did not.
Zoe did not respond, not even when Selena lightly shook her.
"Zoe, are you okay?"
Silence. No words, nothing, just soft breathing. Zoe was not even looking at Gliseah or the demon. She was just staring in the distance, barely responding even as Selena wrapped her hands around her and hugged her. The child had just seen too much.
But Selena could hold her tight and guide her to a safer location.
And something stirred. How was that demon still alive? Gilseah had stabbed her right through her heart!
And the demon lunged faster than Selena or even Gliseah thought possible, but the Lightbringer immediately impaled her again, her spear shattering the silver armour and crashing through the deformed skull.
And the demonic screeches renewed. Had they not finished slaughtering the defenders? What was going on? But Gliseah seemed relieved at whatever it was that arrived, and that was good enough for Selena.
The lightbringer motioned to them, but she did not speak.
And they left.
Selena did not want to move. Were all demons truly dead? Everything was so silent. Even the crackling fires seemed to diminish.
Graverobbers would likely come and loot this place soon, as even elves were not above that practice. Maybe they had to leave. "Zoe, what do you think?" Selena applied a bit of pressure to Zoe's waist, but it did not prompt a response. "It will be okay, Zoe, it will be okay." She had no clue how to handle this, but she had made her vow and intended to keep it.
She stood up.... the landscape was desolate, the village looking as if it had completely burnt out. She looked back to Zoe's house, or what remained of it. Fires had razed it down to the foundation and a large portion of her orchard was ravaged by the flames too. For a brief moment, Selena wanted to be where she was four months ago, still with her parents in her bedroom. Yes, she was poor, but she was cheerful and happy, despite the recent hardships that plagued her family and even the capital as a whole.
She shook herself clear of her thoughts. She needed to make a plan on where to go before she would starve. She could go back to the capital... but that came with so many problems, How could she prove what happened? If she returned to the capital in this state without anything to show for it, she would be beaten up by the Royal Guards, probably worse. If she told them without evidence, no one would believe her anyway. Hell, they probably would deny it even if she brought could bring the demon's skull, but both of the powerful demons she had fought had a skull too heavy for her to carry. And even if she somehow succeeded, Selena half expected the Royal Huntsman to take the skull from her and then bury it to enable the aristocracy to maintain the status quo. He might actually kill her too, if she didn't remain quiet afterwards. Or he would kill her first and ask questions later.
Selena cradled Zoe in her arms, briefly staggering under her weight, but she managed. "I'll keep you safe."
The child responded this time. Not with words, but by resting her head on Selena's shoulder and returning the embrace.
"Yes, go ahead." Selena tightened the embrace, and slowly walked. She saw a brief glimpse of the demon she had first slain to her left, but elected to ignore it. And again she was not alone.
A small woman in black armour stood on the other side of the creek. Was that the figure she saw before Gliseah arrived? Her armour was surprisingly elegant with the way it was just integrated within her dress. Selena did not know what to think about that helmet though, as six candles jutted out vertically from each side. They were burning, but there was no wax leaking from the candles. It was so... odd, though it did not seem as out of place as the description might make one think.
"Is everything okay?"
Selena kept an eye on Zoe, who was still silent in her arms. "No. Two of us are uninjured, but... to say we are 'okay' would be a lie."
The woman nodded. "I understand. Are there others?"
Selena raised a hand. "They were killed just before Gliseah intervened." She paused briefly. "To be honest, I am surprised I am still alive," Selena admitted. But Constantina nor the marksman, what-was-his-name, were not, and Selena was not naive. That she had survived the attention from such a strong entity was a miracle of its own. And that is not even getting into that other demon that wanted to kill her at the start of the fight...
"I'm coming over, elven guard. I have things to do." The stranger paused. "I forgot to tell, but my name is Carlinia."
"I'm Selena. And the girl in my arms is Zoe."
Carlinia arched her eyebrows at the sight of demon's corpse. "Well, I can see why the Soulguide arrived here." She arched her eyebrows. "And I am impressed you manage to survive a few exchanges of attacks against her. Cruetraxa is extremely powerful."
Selena shrugged. "I would have died if it was not for that intervention."
"Don't you get how rare it is what you have done?" Carlinia brandished her staff, pressed the white-hot tip into the corpse. "Most people would have died in your place."
"I'm a thin elf." Selena turned around for emphasis, demonstratively showing Carlinia her back, where her 'armour', if you could call it that, was completely torn apart by Cruetraxa's spear. If she had been of a more average build, even by elven standards, she would have been torn apart and cast her dying breathes in the sand.
"That missed you by a hair." Carlinia shook her head in shock. "We do need to replae that."
"Won't deny that, but I don't think you can help me with that."
Carlinia smiled. "I actually can, though not right now. Before I guide you to my shelter, is there any other demonic corpse I need to know about?"
"Yes." Selena nodded. Definitely. "Wait, is it normal that the corpse remains untouched by fire?"
"With demons, usually, yes. Fire does not do much physically damage to them. But, if the fire is of the right composition, it will deal with lingering dark magic and ruin necromancy. It's not the most practical trick in combat, though, because it takes far too much time."
That made sense. Going through this process would make the dead body safe to bury or otherwise dispose of. "Thanks." Selena gave Carlinia a thumbs up, before motioning to the second demon.
"Yes, that one will definitely do. That's Tarshom, if you did not know." Carlinia set to work once more. "That is quite a strong demon... who broke his neck like that?"
Selena shrugged. "I broke his neck. No, don't ask me how." She flexed her arms demonstratively. Mostly to show that she did not have much there. "I just wanted to drag him off Zoe."
Carlinia nodded. "Understandable." After they walked back in silence. "Good riddance... and my compliments, for what it is worth. To see both Cruetraxa and Tarshon fall today... today is a good day, and in no small part thanks to you."
Selena felt the need to protest. She was no great warrior. Even now it did not feel like that. She more felt lucky, than anything else. "What about luck?"
"Half the part of surviving in battle is to take advantage of the lucky chances that you are given." Carlinia smiled, a warm light emanating from her staff. "Here." A warm light was glowing around her.
Selena smiled too, noticing how the child leaning against her was revigorated. "That feels nice!" She herself felt strengthened too, but it was nothing compared to the effect on Zoe, who visibly shifted and relaxed under the gentle energy. "
Something which Carlinia noticed too. "You're a strong girl, Selena. You resisted the dark magic quite well, so my spell only strengthens you, but it did not have any curse to dispel." She paused. "No... that she does not speak is not part of a curse, sadly. I have seen it happen around the battlefield before." She smiled briefly. "Don't worry, with a bit of help it won't be permanent." She motioned to the other side of the valley.
Selena winced. She had no clue how to do that. "Can you help me?" She did not want to know what the elves in Aravia would think of that question, the alternative was freezing to death or being punished by the Royal Guard.
Carlinia nodded. "Follow me. You can stay in my abby in exchange for helping with the chores and watch duty."
"Of course, of course." Selena smiled. That would speak for itself.
The rest of the day was spent walking to the Carlinia's abby. "Most elves are too stuck up to ask humans for help," Carlinia pointed out. "You'd be surprised at how many elves would not have gone with me."
Selena shrugged,but she could not say she was surprised. "I don't really see the point. We aren't that different." She pulled Zoe a little closer. "Even dwarves don't differ too much from us. They are a little shorter, but not by as much as people like to say." Both humans and elves love to exaggerate the differences... but there's a reason why they were all Telerians. And even the Nyresians were easy enough to work with. Sure, Selena did grow up in a poor neighbourhood, but even there she still saw plenty of strangers, though far less than she used to when she was little. "Where is your abbey?"
"In the north, away from prying demonic eyes."
They walked for two days and two nights, in relative peace, before Carlinia entered a narrow mountain trail with sharp cliffs on either side. One up, one down, across a gaping valley that made the one she fought in earlier appear absolutely diminuitive. "Don't worry too much, we'll be shedding some elevation soon."
And the path turned to the east. And Selena oversaw a gorgeous little crevasse, with the abbey nestled into the cliffside, though the elf felt it looked more like a fortified village with a monastery than an actual abbey, with the gatehouse and the stone walls that protected it, and the obvious blacksmith and other homes all nestled within its walls. The defences were not particularly impressive, but coupled with the natural defences it would not be easy to take... if one even found it in the first place. In front of the walls were some orchards and fields filled whatever fertile land was available within the valley...
The gates opened well before they were in front of them, and two women stepped out, one human and... one dwarf? A Rearguard Sergeant, to be precise, the human being a Canoness. But the middle-aged dwarf intrigued her, how did she end up in the middle of nowhere like this? Maybe just like her - an adventure or mission that just did not go as planned?
And before long, Selena was handed a small bunk room in the larger tower, just above the rooms of Carlinia and the Rearguard Sergeant, who finally introduced herself as Alruna. The room was simple, with a small window in the curved stone wall to provide some light, and two bunks above each on the opposing wall, with a closet and a drawer for their clothes and other possessions that they would accumulate.
After cleaning herself up, she wanted nothing more than to sleep for two days straight, and she could feel that Zoe was no different. Once she had new equipment, she had to be on duty, but that would take a few days.
And there were a few more loose ends that could be tidied up. Selena's equipment, for one, but the armoursmith and tailor 'had something in mind' and would be ready in a few days if everything went well.
Cruetraxa's spear rammed through her chest. Screams.
It was just a dream.
"S-selena?" A voice stammered, uncertainly. Wavering.
Zoe! Zoe! "You're speaking again." Selena wrapped the child up in a hug, forgetting her own nightmare. "How are you feeling?"
"Exhausted." She had just woken up, but after yesterday no one could blame her. "Scared."
"Want to join me for breakfast." Selena did not expect anything extravagant, nor did she want that. She just wanted something healthy that was not absolutely disgusting.
Thankfully, Carlinia and the others had the same mindset.
A few dsys later, Selena's presence was required at the armoury. Selena was excited. She knew her outer skirt would likely remain the same, but everything else.
Her dress would remain the same, more or less, but she had a wide skirt underneath it that ended just above her knees. A gambeson that was in a similar shape as her old chestpiece, though the cutoff at the top was nearly horizontal, just below her shoulders. But multiple flaps could be unfolded and then buttoned together to protect her waist, and the textile was undoubtedly enchanged to be more durable. And the thing was comfortable too. Why wouldn't the elves make something like this? Elven esthetics outside of combat, and in a flash she could have all her vital organs protected in battle!
There was also a pauldron, to be put on her left shoulder... which held a similar shape to her old pauldron, but it was much thinner and lighter and carried an enchantment to make her react faster. She also got new linen gloves and a new gauntlet for her right hand, made out of steel rather than leather and clearly blessed with magic in some way. Her helmet was slightly adjusted to work with her hair and the enchantments were strengthened, but otherwise it remained the same. Her boots were now plated sabatons with metal greaves on top. No heels, which was nice. Selena just was not a fan.
A silver buckler in the shape of a teardrop was to be carried on her left arm, close to her wrist, with a whole bunch of blue gems embedded in the thin metal, together forming the shape of a moon. Lastly, she also had received a new weapon, a spear quite similar to what she used to have. Nothing too special, but it seemed to be a little lighter and more convenient.
"Glad to see you like it." Carlinia smiled. "We considered giving you a poleaxe, but... well, that would be a significantly heavier weapon and it would require a few more months of training at the bare minimum."
Selena nodded along. Poleaxes had a lot of suprisingly intricate techniques in how they were supposed to be used. "I don't think we have that time."
Carlinia clapped the elven girl on her back. "Glad you agree." She smiled.
"This is better equipment than I ever hoped to have." Selena whispered. She could feel the enchantments everywhere.
Carlinia made a face of disgust. "This is pretty basic..." She winked. "But we did invest a few more enchanted materials. Errol insisted to use these materials now rather than wait until the demons take them." She made a face as she pointed downstream. "What do they give Elfguards in the capital?"
Selena grimaced. "You just don't want to know." Her back was still itching every now and then from where those pauldrons stabbed into her.
"I don't think I do." Carlinia pointed to the training fields. "Get some practice in, not that I expect many problems... but you have the evening watch tonight with Alruna." The dwarf? Interesting.
And Selena needed to get a feeling for her new equipment, so she was not complain.
"And how is Zoe doing?"
Selena winced. "Well, she's with canoness Flavia right now." There was not much else to say. "She is speaking more easily, but mostly in single words still." And even once she would speak normally again it might take some time for her to fully recover, if ever. Enchantments and bolstering magic might be able to aid the process, but while time could heal the wounds, the scars would remain.
On the grounds, she noticed a few things. Her armour felt a little better grounded, but not in a way that hindered her mobility. In fact, she felt a little faster, a little more nimble.
And Carlinia left the grounds of the abbey again, in search for more answers. She'd be back in a few days, likely alone. Then again, she had said that last time and Selena and Zoe had tagged along.
Watch duty with the Rearguard Sergeant was different from what she had expected. She was gruff and did not really talk much. But well, she just followed her, kept an eye on anything that moved, as they walked around the monastery, but everybody was fast asleep.
Next they walked along the outer wall was where the Sisters, Novitiates and Yeomen had their stationary shifts. Alruna and Selena just walked by to see if nothing was amiss.
Still, it was an improvement over statue duty at the court... and ultimately, if the most excitement you have during watch duty is filling in for a Novitiate for a moment because has to do his business, that is probably a good thing.
Selena practiced, she got to know the others better, and she studied the various demons.
Zoe joined Selena in the library to read, and inspired by the others, also started exercising. She also took a shift in the orchards, giving her even more to do.
"Well, another shift done." Selena stretched herself. She could go back to sleep, but... it was also a little late for that. She could also just have a rather early breakfast instead. The latter seemed to make the most sense.
A gloved finger tapped on Selena's shoulder.
Selena couldn't help herself but smile. "Carlinia! How did the venture go?"
"It was exhausting and disheartening. All I have is bad news." The young woman grimaced, and her candles seemed to flare up brighter as her mood shifted. "Let's go to the library. It's quieter there, especially at this time of the day. "
"Sure." They could eat later.
Loud purring immediately distracted them, as the large tabby that had his home in the library immediately started to rub his head against their legs. "Quieter, I said," Carlinia shook her head briefly. "I had forgotten about the overly affectionate hairball."
Selena grinned. "Hello to you too." The moment the elf took a seat the cat jumped in her lap. Selena looked at the feline. He really didn't wait more than a second.
"The worst news, though with the things you told me earlier I cannot say I am surprised, is that Aravia is under demon control. Many of the nobles are influenced by the demons, and I don't think they are noticing it themselves..."
Selena gulped, but she could not say she was surprised. In the capital a lot had changed and not exactly for the better. "Can we do something about it?"
"No. That is where the second piece of bad news comes in. I visited other strongholds and abbeys as well, but most are unwilling to get involved. I spoke to Hope, who called it a disgrace, but she was overruled by the bishop." She trembled briefly in anger. "And I have learned in more than one way that Mortu-Macaab is involved in the invasion." She paused. "The forests to the southeast are all crawling with demons." Carlinia whimpered. "And lastly, I also lost track of the Soulguide. Her ally and friend, a chimera known as Tatura Rimehide, does not want me to follow them." She paused. "They indulged me for a few days earlier, but probably because they knew I would be useful in the near future. But now I have no clue where she is." Carlinia stomped on the floor. "I hoped she would be an ally, but she has abandoned us to our fate!"
Selena pulled her fingers through the cat's fur. "Are you going to wait until they come to us?" The elf paused briefly, creating an awkward silence, tense enough for even the cat to vacate his spot on Selena's lap for a pillow on a shelf between the books. "The hairball has the right idea. Carlinia, come." She offered the woman a hand. "Follow me. Time spent crying cannot be spent on making a plan to get out of this bind and deal with Mortu-Macaab."
Carlinia blinked, surprised at the straightforwardness of the elf. "You.. are not wrong. Do you have an idea?"
"Well," Selena started, pointing to the shelves of books about the Demonspawn. "I have been reading, and while I know nothing about strategy, I think that, irrespective of what we are going to do long term, we need to either cut Mortu-Macaab's numbers, or gain more allies ourselves. Or kill the leader directly, but I deem that not an option for us."
Carlinia nodded along. "I don't know if that is going to help."
"We are not the only ones fighting. We know that Gilseah Soulguide is tearing through the demons alongside Tatura... We know the Arbiter is doing things."
"Where are you going with this..."
We will have allies if we can find them. Or even if we cannot find them. We can cast the demons aside."
Alruna joined them. "It may look hopeless, but hope may be all we have." The Rearguard Sergeant paused. "I suggest to run a few probes at the nearby demons and see what happens. We can mount a few attacks, and as long as we withdraw through the night, we might be able to get back here safely." She paused. "The only alternative really is just hunker down here. Don't leave, don't do anything. Just hide and wait until the Arbiter and other powerful beings have dealt with the demons."
"The moment the demons know we are here we will have to pay tribute to them. In living humans, or elves I suppose."
Selena grimaced. Wait, was that how her parents disappeared?!
Alruna whispered. "But I agree with the sentiment. We can't just cower here forever. My idea is, if Errol lets us, to make an experimental run first, no matter what we do. Just the three of us, maybe with a handful of others, attacking a nearby group of demons, or maybe several. Just to see how things go."
"Do we have anything to deal with enemies from a distance?" Selena queried.
They stared at each other.
"Good point." Carlinia was the first to speak up. "Technically I do, but twenty to thirty feet of range on a spell that I can only use once in a while is a problem."
Alruna nodded. "For me it's worse. I never used anything other than the flail."
Selena shook her head. "We can shake hands. I might have new equipment with new shiny protective charms, but I am still an Elfguard, to some degree. My knowledge regarding how to use a weapon starts and ends with the spear." She paused. "If we take one of the priestesses and some archers with us, we should have the bases covered, though."
The dwarf stood up, to a rather surprising height. Yes dwarves were shorter than elves and humans, but not by anywhere near as much as humans and elves liked to joke. Alruna was still nearly five feet tall, quite average for a dwarf. "We can ask Tanaquil. That Warpriest has been itchy for some time."
Carlinia's eyes widened briefly.
"What?" Alruna managed to somehow sound innocent.
Carlinia blanched. "N-nothing."
"Your secret is safe with me." The Sergeant had to stop herself from laughing.
Selena looked at the two other women. "I am missing something."
Carlinia elected to explain, despite her pale face. "The rules of Lumaya state that a woman in my role cannot marry, and engaging in a love life with a man is forbidden for one that is not married. But there are zero rules whatsoever on what I do with another woman."
Alruna was shaking with mirth. It was completely out of character for the dwarf to laugh like this, so it must have been very funny. Or maybe she was just grumpy on the patrols.
But Selena did not really care about what Carlinia did or did not do with Tanaquil. "Thankfully the only other person in this room is an elf, and she doesn't care."
Carlinia rolled her eyes. "Let's get something to eat."