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Dark Tidings

Dark Tidings

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2 сент. 2022, 20:3902.09.22
08.01.20
2

Dark Tidings

Fanfiction has always been a bit of an exercise sandbox to me. Fanfiction is where I practice things without having to commit hours, days or weeks to worldbuilding. There were several things I wanted to get some writing practice in, but I committed to far more of the things on that list than I expected at first, so this became a much longer story than I had originally anticipated. Oh well, enjoy reading!

Warning: This story is not for the faint of heart.


---


   Selena was not the perfect picture. At least, not according to the elven Royal Family. They preferred redheads, for some reason, at least for their ceremonial guard. And Selena had somewhat pale blond hair. It was not the only thing that detracted from her 'attractiveness', at least from the perspective of the Aravian king. She was slender to the point it was unattractive even by elven standards, and flat as a board. And as such, when she finished her training as an Elfguard, she was assigned to one of the lesser nobles.

   At first, that sounded good. Less stringent requirements than when she was assigned to the king or one of the higher nobles. 

   But after she met them, she quickly learned to dislike these nobles. They were stuck-up and arrogant, treating everybody else as dirt beneath them. Not only that, they desperately sought to 'to be respected' by higher tiers of the elven aristocracy. 

   Selena thought they just wanted their attention. Not that she'd ever voice that opinion. That would be a very fast way to be beaten up. These nobles already treated her like dirt or worse, and the older Aristocrat that was her direct superior did not need that much prompting to have her Elfguards beaten up to begin with. She was cruel even at the best of days. One could only really avoid her scorn by meeting her unreasonably high standards of elegance, and even that might not be enough.

   But she did everything in her power to make meeting that standard that impossible. Standing guard was the least of her worries, but yet it was a nightmare. You had to stand still like a mannequin for as long as your shift lasted, or your equipment would hurt you in ways you would not believe. Because she wanted you to be a perfectly elegant statue of an elf, except living and breathing. Which also meant that, when her shift ended, she had to go through some excruciating pain to get back to her bunk and take everything off. Because she was not allowed to do that anywhere else. 

   And her equipment was fiendishly bad. Selena never thought she would say this until this Aristocrat handed her this equipment, but she'd rather dress like an Orc for a month than to be forced to wear this, if she'd had the choice. The list of issues was endless.

   Her choker was soft and old, to the point it was torn in many places by previous wearers. Protective charms on it had faded or had never been present in the first place. Her chestpiece was made of rather soft leather and probably would not protect her against injury, not to mention it left her belly exposed. Her heels were unstable. The leather around her legs had an odd pattern, which would not be too bad if it wasn't for the fact that it itched around its edges. But the worst part were her pauldrons. Those were far too heavy and had an odd shape that caused them to often tangle up her hair. They also fit poorly, both in their own cruel ways. The right one was constantly digging into her back, restricting her mobility at best and leaving scuffs and wounds at worst, Her left pauldron was biting into her chest whenever she moved. At least she didn't have much there, otherwise it would have been far worse. And the worst part was, or the best part according to the Aristocrat and the nobles she answered to, that if she stood as still as her duties required, nothing seemed amiss.


   And so Selena stood there, for her first time as an official Elfguard. One out of eight in service of this particular Aristocrat. All of them were uncomfortable and stiff, with their arms rigidly at their side. One wrong movement would start the pain and invoke the ire of the Aristocrats. And then the elven nobles wondered why so many of the guards died during battle. She was pretty sure she was meant to be just a statue, not actually part of the army. Bloody hell. She had joined the military to learn to defend her kingdom, not to be... well... this.

   "The Heiress!" The Adjudicator announced her arrival.

   And Selena forced herself to stand guard, tall and proud, watching the young noblewoman walk past. She could do whatever she wanted, but she was never happy. Never content. She always wanted more. And she released that frustration on the guards, just like the others. And while most of that remained verbal, it also often did not.


   And then watch duty was over. She slipped away to the sides and through a hidden door, almost unseen and to be replaced immediately, another Elfguard already waiting in the wings. 

   "Out of my way. runt!" The Heiress barked the order as she shunted Selena to the side, and she barely caught herself from falling as she steadied herself against the wall. "And don't you dare."

   Selena whimpered in pain as she struggled to get back up. Otherwise she remained quiet, not wishing to upset the irate noblewoman.

   "What's the matter?" The Heiress kept harrassing her. "Are you that weak?"

   Selena finally managed to get herself up, despite the pain the movement caused. "Leave me alone." Her eyes widened when she realised what just slipped out. Now she was really going to be punished.

   "Treat me with the respect I deserve." The noblewoman bit back.

   "I am sorry..." Selena babbled rapidly, trying to calm the woman and to prevent worse. "I did not mean to say that."   

    "You'll hear more from this, runt." And she turned her back towards her, leaving her behind.


   Selena decided to wait at the entrance. Maybe she would not be punished if the Aristocrat would see her waiting, even if that meant skipping a much-needed meal. She had learned that during her training. Go immediately and wait, because if the guard has to look for you he will likely be pissed. And so she stood unmoving in the courtyard, where the cold wind brushed against her skin and the hunger gnawed away at her.

   Was this why she became a soldier? Not that she had many other options since her parents disappeared, but...

   

   "Selena!" A male Aristocrat approached her. "Good to see you waiting."

   Selena was sure he had seen her standing there for half a shift already. "It is no problem, mylord!" She felt herself quiver under the gaze of her superior.

   "Follow me, runt."

   Again with the 'runt'. Selena was not that short. But she obeyed, walking on shaky legs. Her heels just weren't made to walk across sandy proving grounds. But it was not far, with the officers residing in a luxurious tower on the side of the palace. Still, the empty stomach and being weighed down by a pair of misshaped pauldrons that weighed half as much as she did herself made it far more exhausting than it should be... More Aristocrats stood here, but they were much more animated. Others were actively fencing in their training halls. They were an active fighting force, the officers of the elven army. of the Not a mannequin like she was. 

   He gestured her to drop her spear, which she did.

   "You are a rookie, aren't you? Green as grass." The Aristocrat walked up to her. Grabbed her by her neck.   

   "Yes, mylord." It was true, after all.

   "Do you know what you did wrong?" The man shouted as if he were a barbarian.

   "Yes, mylord." He tightened the grip on her neck, forcing her to gasp and sending a spike of pain through her back. That stupid pauldron!  "I let my mouth run ahead of myself, mylord."

   He shoved her forcefully into the wall. "You did what?" He let go of her, causing her to drop like a brick.

   Selena screamed in pain as the pauldrons dug into her skin and made her nerves scream out. 

   "Quiet! You did what?" He stomped on her toes.

    Selena convulsed as another spike of pain seared through her back, and it took her a second to regain her composure. "I let my mouth run ahead of me, mylord." Selena spoke faster than needed, afraid of what this man would do to her. 

   "Girlie, get up." 

   Selena stuttered in fear as she struggled to get upright. "Yes, mylord."

   "Take this!" He punched her in the stomach.

   Selena doubled up, whimpering at the pain surging through her body. What had she done to deserve this? Why had she elected to be part of the elven armies in the first place?

   "I have a task for you." He pointed to the gate. "There's an Aristocrat to the west of Aravia. She feels unsafe. I want you to take a look." 

   Selena gulped. "Why me, mylord?" That was not a task she was trained for. Not a task she was suited for, either. The nobles would percieve this as an insult. This was a task for an officer of noble birth, not a foot soldier meant to look pretty. It could also have been a joke or some form of hazing, and Selena immediately knew that was quite likely.

   "Because I don't want to do it myself, and I doubt it's anything anyways. Go to the Great Waterfall, then turn to the northwest by following the smaller creek upstream. On the mountainside, you will find the village near a smaller waterfall." He paused briefly to hand her a cachet as a proof of identification. "Once you are there, you should be able to see the Aristocrat's fortified home on the trail just behind the village, which is where she cried for help." 

   Selena nodded. She knew that village existed. She had seen detailed maps of the kingdom of Aravia before. "What do I have to do once I get there?"

   "Check what is going on, and if necessary, solve it."

    "Yes, mylord." She could not say anything else. She did not want to find out the punishment if she did. She was already sore all over.

 

   With that order, she left Aravia for a nameless village in its hinterland. A poor village, where people were likely struggling to make ends meet or even starving for the glory of Aravia, that was overseen by one of Aravia's lesser nobles, likely alongside a handful of other villages. 

   It was a long walk. The Aristocrat made it sound short, but it was at least a few days away. Follow the river, follow it all the way upstream until you encounter the Great Waterfall, after which the village is nearby.

   "And bloody demons, that accursed pauldron!" And with that exclamation, Selena took her right pauldron and dropped it in the river. Good riddance. She was not going to walk with that abomination sticking into her any longer. She rolled her shoulder in relief, despite the pain that move forced through her. But that pain would be temporary. And with the relief, she dumped her other pauldron as well, as that one was not that much better. If there was an enchantment on those, it was to make those things feel even heavier to the person unfortunate enough to wear them.


    At least she wasn't Luthiea. Selena quietly wondered how that lady even walked. Even the mere thought of suffering like her, day after day, month after month and year after year made her retch. Yet no one allowed her to change her dress to not have three knives tear into her leg with every step she takes.

   Maybe she should seek out the Arbiter. She avoided Aravia like the plague and probably not without reason, but she was one of the few with the influence and power to deal with those selfish nobles. And if not, maybe she could join a Summoner on some kind of crazy quest for glory. Everything beats being a mannequin wearing armour that is designed to make every single move a painful endeavor.

   Selena pondered for a second if the elven kingdom has always been like this... but for some reason, she did not think so. Things were not as bad even just a decade ago, when she was a small child.


   Only taking a break to eat and sleep at a hunting outpost, Selena continued her quest. Found the waterfall, which was absolutely impossible to miss with its thunderous roar as countless gallons of water were dropped at least a hundred feet down. She swerved around the resulting lake and followed the much smaller creek that flowed right next to the cliff, just like the irate noble had mentioned, with a beautiful pine forest on her other side that grew across a much gentler hill.

   And she found the village she was looking for would enter her view. Or rather, the small orchards and fields of wheat in front of it that stretched down the gentler slopes of the mountain that dominated the landscape. Most of the hamlet itself was on this side of the creek, just a few houses squared around a small market, but there was a bridge leading to a few small farms on its other side, with a few more fields and orchards backed against much steeper rocky slopes. Slightly further upstream, on the same far side of the river, was another small orchard nestled on a gentler slope, that ended, with one last house nestled near the creek. Two waterfalls added to the scenery, the small one pretty much in front of the house and the taller one just behind it, with probably around hundred feet of distance between the two of them. The last building in the village was mostly made of marble. If the Royal Guard had been correct, that would be the castle of the Aristocrat that kept a close watch on the trade route. It was an idyllic view, and it seemed as if nothing could break the peace, not even the torrential downpour that slowly started to rush down from a thick layer of grey clouds. 

   The village itself was small, just as Selena had expected. Just a few homes around a market. There was a blacksmith, living in a brick house that was clearly built by humans. Elves just didn't use bricks much, preferring either wood or marble. The other houses were much more elvish, made out of wood, generally a little smaller and quite rounded, just like the house she had grown up in herself. 

   But indeed, from this village, she could see the marble house of the local nobles, and with new determination, Selena stepped out to meet them. Her heart was pounding rapidly within her chest. This was the first time she was ordered to take initiative in talking with a noble and it just did not feel right.

   The noblewoman, or rather, a lackey, opened the gate, but only the wooden door. The metal grate remained closed, forcing Selena to wait in the rain, even after she handed the lackey the cachet of identification. 

  The Aristocrat walked out, stiff and formal. Said something that Selena could not hear properly. "She's not a noble or a member of the Royal Guard!" She almost screeched as her expression had contorted to one of absolute horror. "Is this a joke?" 

   Selena did not blame her. She wondered whether it was a joke or an insult the moment she left the city of Aravia. But while she had not expected anything different, she couldn't just walk back now. She had to get what she came for. Now, how to get to the nobles and ask?  Also, why didn't the nobles put more details within the message? But she kept her mouth shut. Maybe she would have a kindred spirit in their dislike for the nobles in Aravia, but she could also be punished with another beating. 


   Instead, Selena returned to the village. She was tired, needed a place to sleep, and she would like to get some answers too. Because at this point, it was clear to her she was sent here with a reason that was not just 'a joke'. The local Aristocrat had given as good as an admission on that by expecting someone important or strong. That this was not taken serious in Aravia was a different matter, but there was something strange going on here. Something that the locals clearly could not handle alone, otherwise the Aristocrat would not have been in such a panic after it became clear she had been abandoned to her fate.

   A gruff voice, an older man, stood under the overhang of the smithy as he was putting out the fire of his forge. "Are you from Aravia?"

   Selena nodded. "Yes."

   The man looked at her. Plucked on his greying hair, and shook his head. And walked back inside, with his head buried in his hands.

   "Pardon me sir, but what is going on here?"

   But the man declined to answer. And the rain that was soaking her to the bone felt just as figurative as it was literal. 

    

   So she asked the carpenter instead. "Mister, do you know what is going on?

   "Ask the blacksmith." The man didn't even turn around. 

   Selena shook her head in dismay. "But I am asking you. Can you tell me what is going on?"

   "The blacksmith is the town's elder. Ask him, ma'am."

  Maybe this was not the right approach. "Maybe later. Is there anywhere in this village I can stay for the night?" If she would tell him she wanted to look for the answers herself, or that she had already spoken to the blacksmith, then she would undoubtedly be told that this was not her business anymore.

   The tailor shrugged. "There is an orphan living on the other side of the river. She refuses to marry for some reason." He sounded dismissive, as if he did not like the orphan at all. "Her house is on the hill in the curve of the river, near the waterfalls. Annoy her."

   Selena shook her head. At least she had directions, even if the tailor was not acting in good faith. 


   And it was easy enough to find. At least, if she was not being lied to. For one, the hill was impossible to miss from the entire village, even if it was only about twenty feet tall at most, but that was enough to make it stand out over the village, and the two waterfalls formed obvious landmarks. And if that was not enough, there was only a single path leading there. 

    A moment later, Selena stood in front of the orchard, which was somewhat messy, as if its owner was unable to properly take care of everything. But despite the weed growing at ground level, there would be a nice harvest in a month or so. As Selena staggered up the orchard on the steep slope, she found the house itself, It was beat-up and small, almost hidden, to the point that Selena wondered whether it could called a 'house'... Maybe it was just the shed? Selena took a deep breath. She knocked on the door. Who knew what waited on the other side? Just an orphan, or more than that? Or nothing at all, because it was just the shed?

   The door opened. "Hello? Who are you?" A young brunette, younger than Selena had expected. Well, that answered also why the girl did not want to marry. Selena would not want to marry if she was eleven years old either. Even as an eighteen year old she still had no real interest in marrying. She was an elf, she could reasonably expect to live for centuries or even millenia. 

   "I'm Selena, and the others told me to go to the orphan."

   "I am the orphan, yes. My name is Zoe." She pointed at her. It was clear she was skeptical at the visiting stranger, and who wouldn't be? "Why are you here, ma'am?"

   "I am here to find out why the nobles called for help, but the nobles didn't open the door. So I went to the towns' elder, but he refused to answer me... next I went to the carpenter, who sent me back to the elder... so I asked for a place to sleep instead, and he sent me here."

   The orphan shivered. "Come in. You don't have to stand in the rain." The child let her in, closed the door. "But it is really scary here."

   Selena arched her eyebrows. "Can you explain?" She inched closer to the child. 

   "I have not slept much ever since they first arrived. They never entered our village, but after the last full moon they made a huge mess on the other side of the mountain, burning everything down. Many people left since."  

   Six days ago, give or take? "Who are 'they'?" 

  "Something nasty. I did not see anything. Nobody told me anything." The child spoke rapidly, almost stumbled over her own words. "I just saw families fleeing further east." Zoe appeared a little forlorn, as if she was staring deep into an abyss. "Some families here have left too. But I have nowhere to go." 

  "It's okay. I'll try my best to keep you safe, at least." Selena wrapped her arms around the brunette, shattering her fear.

  "What can you do?"

  "I don't know," Selena admitted as she pulled the child a little closer. "But I can at least try. Let's hope my equipment doesn't betray me."

  Zoe appeared to be confused. "What?"

  "I'm an Elfguard. And as an Elfguard, the first thing you learn after your training is over is that you are meant to be a mannequin, not a warrior. And the equipment you are wearing reflects that. I got rid of some liabilities, but I still have those stupid heels and a rather exposed abdomen."

   "Selena, use my sister's boots if they fit you." Wait, what? "She left them here when she married, having just grown out of them."

   "Sure, thanks."

   Zoe fetched a pair of sturdy boots that indeed fit the Elfguard nicely. "How is it going?"

    Selena judged her steps. "Perfect indeed."

   "I don't have anything to protect you, so you will have to do that yourself."

   "I'll give it a go. Thanks, Zoe!" She had already more than she could have hoped for, or even ask for. The young woman looked at the exhausted child. "Why don't you go to sleep? You are exhausted and I can keep watch over you."

    "Sounds good, after we have had something to eat."

    Selena felt her heart warm up. This girl was so generous and hospitable. "Thanks again!" 


---

  

   The night arrived in peace, and remained peaceful, as the rain cast a veil over the village that protected it for now. She didn't even know whether she wanted to return to Aravia or just take care of this orphan for the forseeable future. It wasn't like anyone would miss her at home. No, that was a little harsh. Maybe her mother would. 


   As the clouds cleared up, Selena decided to take up her task again. "Well, Zoe, it's been nice to meet you. But I will have to try meeting the Aristocrat again." The Elfguard smiled and hugged the girl one last time. "Thanks for everything, in case I don't see you again."

   "Does that mean you can see me again?" Zoe sounded hopeful.

   "Well, it is too late to start walking back to Aravia. It's walking for two days straight, and while you can walk through the night near Aravia, I would not dare to do so here... so if you don't mind, I'll make use of your hospitality for one more night in case that Aristocrat doesn't let me in." And Selena definitely would search for a way to not abandon the orphan to her fate.

   Zoe stared into the distance. "Even if she does, make use of my hospitality later."  

   Are you lonely, Zoe?  


   The local Aristocrat did just let her wait this time. Well, Selena was used to waiting. She knocked on the gate again. But no response. So she waited longer. At least the weather was bearable this time. 

   Eventually a lackey opened a window above the gate. "Girlie, leave. The lady does not want to speak to you."


   Selena was not too surprised, and with the setting sun casting a shadow over the mountains, she knocked at Zoe's door again. "I'm back."

   The door opened, and before Selena knew it Zoe had jumped in her arms.

   "It's okay..." Selena wondered what had affected the girl so badly, but she was not going to ask. Prying open the scars would hurt her so much. 


---

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2 сент. 2022, 20:4802.09.22
6 сент. 2022, 16:00(отредактировано)
08.01.20
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   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!

   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."

   "How?" 

   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.

    "Yes."

    "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.

   Daylight.

   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.

   "Wha?"

   "Hello, Selena!"

   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."   


---

2 сент. 2022, 20:5702.09.22
08.01.20
2

   A few days later, they stood on the mountain trail, but this time they skipped down to the valley. They had a target and they would be going for it; the 'tax collector' and his escort, just as they left a small town in the early afternoon. It was frighteningly close to Carlinia's abbey. It would take a while before they would be at their closest to this hill, and that is when they would spring their trap. And the mission was as straightforward as it got. Kill the demons, save the people sent as tribute, and loot the tax the demons had confiscated.

   "A Hellgazer, otherwise mostly Pitspawns and Vilespawns, with an Incubus or two. No hounds. No archers. I'm seeing some people that were taken as tribute." Carlinia noted. Her candles were dimmed to reduce visibility within the bushes, responding to the woman's willpower more than anything else. The moment she charged into battle they would flare up in an instant.

   Selena inched closer to the top of the hill they had taken as a vantage point. And indeed, if they followed the trail down the hill they could swerve around and ambush them a moment. Her heart was already pounding in her chest in anticipation of the fight, and she could feel the others were not doing any better. Tanaquil, the young redheaded warpriest, was quivering on her heels. It might have been her first battle entirely. Carlinia had been around many battlefields, and seen many skirmishes and duels in the past year, but she was still relatively young. Alruna was standing stoically in front of everybody else, as if she would fight alone against the Demonspawn and protect everybody under her wing. Or flail.

   But most of the fight would fall on the archers. Two women, four men, led by a veteran Bombardier that had more combat experience than everyone else present, with the possible exception for Alruna, and they were itching to empty their quivers on the demons as they slowly drew nearer. Lady Etessa was itching too, but after drawing straws with the Bombardier she got the short one and had to remain at the abbey.

   Selena inspected their tribute. Blindfolded, all of them, and bound to each other by a chain around their ankles. Two men, of which one was quite old, at least in his fifties. The other was young, at the cusp of his puberty. Two pretty women in their early twenties. And lastly, a willowy teenage girl, strained on purpose as her hands were tied behind her back and contorted in an awkward angle as a particularly grey-skinned demon forcefully pulled them up. Growling, she couldn't wait to impale that Incubus on her spear. 

   "It is time." Carlinia gave the order, and Alruna skidded down the slope in an unnaturally smooth motion, blocking the path, while the archers started to aim their volleys at the Hellgazer, turning her into a hedgehog before she could comprehend what was happening. Carlinia and Selena stood side by side, keeping watch near the archers, with Tanaquil standing right in between everbody, mace in her hands. 

   Archers reloaded, fired a second volley, striking down several demons.

   One demon rammed his spear through the young boy near the front of the column, sending the captives into a panic and causing the girl at the back to be thrown to the floor. The demon laughed, kicked her in her ribcage and stomped on her buttocks, before he suddenly lashed out at the woman in front of him. 

   Selena felt the urge to retch at the cruelty displayed. 

   Carlinia nudged the elf. "Selena, let's stop that." 

   The elf nodded, allowing Carlina to steady her before she rushed down the hill, aiming for the demon at the back, just as he murdered the second woman. "Cover me while I take that asshat out." The tip of her weapon started to glow as the Warpriest blessed it for the upcoming fight, inspiring Selena to charge even faster.

  Carlinia nodded, her staff whirling with white-hot flames. "No problem." 

  Selena broke past the guard of the Incubus and rammed her spear into his intestines, once, two, and a third time just for good measure. 

   He did not get up, but Selena had no time to celebrate as three more demons rushed her. The elf pivoted to the side, falling back and allowing the rightmost demon to be isolated. Realising his weakness, the demon lunged, but Selena parried the blow with her buckler before she impaled him.

   Another demon collapsed to an arrow, leaving just one. He prepared to throw his spear, but Selena ran forwards, dodging to the side as the demon hurled his spear, and then jabbed him in his knee. As he staggered, Selena pulled back before going straight for the throat.

   And all demons were dead.

   But so where most of their tributes. Only the teenage girl at the back survived, courtesy of the fact that the demon had prefered to hurt her before killing her.


   "Help her," Carlinia ordered, and Selena quickly released her, shattering her lock with her spear and cutting away the ropes around her hands.

   She shakily stood up. Her face was bloodied from hitting the ground, her left arm displaced and her stance unsteady. "Thanks for saving my life."

   Tanaquil raised a hand. "Is everybody else fine?" 

   Selena nodded. "Aye!" The demons had not even managed to get a finger on her. Were they that bad at fighting? Was she that good? Selena did not need to think long to ignore those two questions. Because they were irrelevant; even a common soldier can kill the king if the latter deems himself invincible.

   "Aye!" The others confirmed they were fine as well.

   "Tanaquil, we are fine. You can heal her." Alruna confirmed.

   Lumaya's Light washed over the teenager's features, brushed away the blood and grime and left nothing but perfectly hale skin behind. Her arm snapped back into place.

   "Thanks," she whispered. "But what do I do next?"

   Carlinia offered her a hand. "That is up to you... ehh..." She was looking for a name,

   "...Zinnia," the teenager finished. 

   Even Selena felt revigorated as Carlinia made that simple gesture, and there was no doubt she used that spell again. 

   "Can I join you?"

   "Sure, Zinnia. Make yourself useful and nobody is going to complain. I'm sure you have been raised with something in mind." Tanaquil answered before even Carlinia could. 


---


   The next interception failed entirely as the demons took a slightly different path than usual, rendering it impossible to pin them down without a long and awkward chase in clear sight.


---   


   "ALARM!"


   What?  


   "ALARM!"


   Everybody on the wall seemed to chorus.


   "ALARM!"


   Selena buttoned her gambeson tight, with Zoe's help.


   "ALARM!"


   Zinnia handed Selena her sabatons. She could hear noises downstairs as Carlinia, Alruna and some others were also struggling to be in full armour.


    "ALARM!"


   Selena ran upstairs, to the battlements, gambeson buttoned up, spear in one hand and her shield fastened to other her arm. Carlinia and Tanaquil were hot on her heels, weapons drawn. Alruna would join in a moment.


   "ALARM!"


   But they still had no clue what was going on, and Selena opened the door and stormed on the wall.   Two men were shouting, a third was pale as a ghost, rapidly firing arrows at something down below.


   "ALARM!"


   Everybody on the wall was shouting now. But nobody knew what was happening.


   "ALARM!"


 But even up here she could not see it. But death was out there. She could see the corpses, though. At least a dozen, rent apart by viciously sharp claws. 

   People fled. Where was Zoe? She had chores outside of the main battlements! Was she still on duty now? Had her duty just ended? At least Selena did not immediately see her corpse among the slain. 

   A blur at the bottom of her vision, shifting through the shadows.

   Did she see that correctly?

   Another scream. Behind her. A man had fallen, just behind her.

  The blur. Caught in the light from Carlinia's candles, transfixed in place. There were no shadows for it to hide in.

   Selena did not need to think twice as the demon lunged at her, blocked the claws somehow with her buckler, parried a second blow with her spear and giving her a brief moment to take in her foe. He was broad-shouldered, with dark grey and beige skin, with almost black armour that was tainted by red veins, as if literal blood was flowing through it. Bright red eyes. Long appendages grew out of his chin and in place of his hair... He did not have a mouth, and if it did, it was hidden. A true abomination, and his power would be difficult to match.

   In another blur he lashed out, and Selena just ducked underneath the claws before lashing out with her spear, but the demon easily parried. 

   "Cut it out!" Tanaquil admonished, and the demon turned before she bashed her shield into his side. 

   The demon lashed out, cleaving her shield apart with a brutal slash that Tanaquil barely managed to dodge otherwise, and Selena darted in, puncturing his skin. 

   Furious, the demon stared at Selena.

   Selena stared back, battering his claw aside with her shield before furiously kicking the demon in his gut with a roundhouse kick, opening up the distance.

   Tanaquil's mace clobbered him in the head.

   Carlinia's staff scorched the fleshy appendages on his chest.

   Selena's spear punctured him from the side.

   The demon staggered, screeched, and lashed out with a blackened blast that lifted Selena clean off the granite walls and smashed her into the tower behind her. 

   "Leave them alone!" More men stormed up the ramparts, but the demon slaughtered them in a single motion.

   Sick to her core from the blow and what she just witnessed, Selena staggered upright. Carlinia was right at her side, being tossed along the battlents before her head slammed into one of the crenellations. Her face was bruised, her staff broken, just like one of the candles on her helmet that was now flaring up erratically. 

   Tanaquil was bloodied on the other side, her arm oddly displaced.

   The demon lunged for her, cleaving through the chainmail and plate armour as if it did not exist before goring her through her sternum and slashing along her spine in the blink of an eye, sending blood splattered all over the battlements.

   Selena pushed herself upright, fighting against the pain that made her tremble. What was this demon?

   Carlinia did the same. Her candles flared bright and eratically, banishing away the shadows and filling them with strengthening energy.

   The wall from the tower behind their back was blind. Parapets on both sides. This was their last stand. Unless they made it past the demon, to the other side, there was no way out.

   The demon charged once again.

   Selena stood in front of Carlinia, knowing the woman was disarmed and vulnerable.

   More men and women rushed their way up the ramparts. They would be too late.

   Selena steadied herself, ducked underneath a wild blow that was so powerful one of the merlons was torn clean off, and she lashed out, only to be parried by the demon's second claw that knocked her into a parapet. 

  The demon rushed forwards, aiming to hunt Selena down, but Selena parried a vertical slash with her buckler, its enchantments holding somehow against the demon's wicked blow as his weapon now slammed straight into the granite below. 

   "Leave it!" A familiar voice.

   And a hefty flail knocked the demon on the back of his head. The demon furiously turned around, and flail met claw once and then twice, the chain now tangling around one of the claws.

   The demon had disarmed Alruna in a matter of moments, but Selena took that distraction moment to impale the demon from behind, but the demon quickly blocked with glowing red armour.  Selena, knowing the demon could not face her immediately, lashed out again and drove her spear deep into the demon's back, and then again and again. Boiling blood started to seep out of the wounds, but it did not seem to impede the demon much. She knew what would happen next as Alruna shakingly parried a mighty blow from the demon with her gauntlet that crippled her anyway, and her enchanted mace was now thrown over the merlons and into the grass below. And Selena lunged once more, and she would have impaled the demon if it was not for a sudden motion that made use of her own shadow, causing Selena to stumble forwards. As Selena dashed again, the demon smashed his elbow against Selena's skull, before  impaling Alruna through the throat in one single motion.

   Furious and dazed, Selena lashed out again, but the demon shifted away, barely avoiding the spear as he ran down the men and women running up the rampart to fight him,

  And the it unleashed a dark storm, tearing their bodies asunder in a single motion. Armigers and Sisters had their armour rent just like Alruna and Tanaquil before her, and the demon ran them over without pausing.


  Errol stormed out to fight the demon himself. Striding out in powerful enchanted armour that was beautiful in its simplicity. He had no need for flashy embellishments to show his wealth and power. And he was probably the strongest of them all.

  He engaged in a deadly dance, using his greatsword to block an absolutely massive two-handed blow from the demon, but the power behind the attack was immense, easily knocking the abbot off his feet and into the granite wall behind him, cracking the stone as if it had been just a thin plate. 

   But Errol was not a man to give up easily, and he stood up, somehow managed ducked underneath one blow before lashing out with his colossal sword, but the demon dodged, shifted back into the shadows.

   And he reappeared behind the abbot.

   Errol knew the game that was played, spun in place, immediately dodging another blow in the process, deflecting a second blow and then riposted the demon into his arm, but the demon took that moment to cut his head clean off with the claw-sword on his other hand.


   It was so sudden, so quick...


  What was this demon? In daylight it was frighteningly strong, but in the shadows it was even faster, and completely indomitable in combat. 

   The demon visibly looked at them, aiming to finish what it started, but an arrow struck him in the thigh.


   Selena, realising she could not remain here with Carlinia, walked across the dozen or so corpses strewn in front of them, and Carlinia led them back to their nearby quarters. Some of the men were still alive, moaning in agony as they were slowly bleeding to death. Or quickly, in some cases... 

   "Carlinia, do you know what that thing is?" Selena knew she sounded unsteady, but...

   Carlinia shook her head. "I have read about this entity, but its name is a mystery." Her voice shook.  "One source calls it the 'Butcher', but that is all I know."

   Selena grimaced. The movement in which the demon's blade slammed through Alruna's throat returned to her mind, and she had to resist the urge to vomit. 

   "We hear screams. Everybody okay?" Zoe sounded innocent.

   "No. No one is okay." Selena did not want to sugarcoat it.. "Is there any way to trap him, Carlinia?" She would know this abbey from the inside and out. 

   Carlinia nodded quickly. "I think so. We need to go to the armoury, where I can fetch my spare staff. But behind the armoury there is a corridor where we might be able to trap the demon once he's finished with Lady Etessa, if he can get to her."

   "Zoe, Zinnia, stay here. This tower is too small for him to enter properly, so you are safe here." 


   They locked the door behind them and, rushed through the corridor. Past the monastery itself. Selena cast one brief look through the open backdoor, and retched at the sight. Several young women laid across the floor, their chainmail drenched in a dark scarlet as it was torn to shreds.  

   "That..." Her voice was wavering, she was unsteady on her feet and her candles flared frantically. "I think the demon is close." 

   Selena nodded. She struggled to fight back her own tears, but she could not show weakness now. Not when their lives depended on it and that demon was still on the prowl.

   They walked past the abandoned kitchen, overseeing the barracks and the courtyard below. The butcher was truly living up to that moniker, with an entire wall being gleefully torn apart, leaving debris from the collapsed wall scattered everywhere, stacked high enough to obscure vision,

   The armoury was just around the corner. They might make it.


   But the 'Butcher' was right in front of them. The fight would be on his terms, not theirs. 


   He was not unscathed, though. His armour was chipped or even broken in various places, with a particularly gaping slash mark in his left calf that was now glowing a bright red. One arrow with a blue fletching had been embedded deep in his left pauldron. Three arrows with green fletchings were stuck in his thighs, a fourth in his chest and a fifth was embedded in his right biceps, just above the cut that Errol had made earlier. Lady Etessa had given him what she could with her crossbow before she was undoubtedly slain. He had large wounds on his head from where Alruna and Tanaquil had hit him, a large black spot on his left arm that seemed out of place. One of his tendrils was cut off by something, another two were burnt from Carlinia's attack. Dark blood was still oozing from a multitude of stab wounds, at least four of which were inflicted by Selena herself, but there were several more.


   Selena took a deep breath. She knew she was not up to fight such an ancient entity, whether he was injured or not. But there was no escape. And she had no one to truly back her up, though Carlinia's candles would deprive the demon of the shadows he needed for his most dangerous tricks. And the demon was injured, But would that be enough to survive this engagement?

  She closed her eyes for half a second, for one last time, and braced herself. Because the 'Butcher' was almost upon her. 

  He lashed out with two impatient haymakers, but Selena swung backwards, dodging both blades by a hair, before parrying a third with her shield, sending her skidding across the floor. She refound her footing, crouched underneath another strike, before she saw her chance. stabbed the demon straight in the stomach, almost impaling him as the spear exited him near his neck, the tip hitting his pauldron from the inside with so much force that it dislodged from his shoulder, tearing the dark skin apart.

   And the demon collapsed.


   Selena barely managed to dive out of the way of the bloodied beast.


   Selena watched with bated breath. She was unarmed now, her spear still stuck within the beast. if the demon was still alive and able to fight, she was done for. They all would be done for, completely helpless.


   But it was over. The 'Butcher' was dead.


   Selena sighed in relief. 

   She had done it. 


----------


Champions featured:

High Elves:

- Arbiter (mentioned) 

- Aristocrat

- Elfguard (Selena, among others)

- Fencer (Constantina)

- Heiress

- Luthiea (mentioned)

- Marksman (Ares, among others)

- Royal Guard (mentioned)

- Royal Huntsman (mentioned)

- Tatura Rimehide 


Banner Lords:

- Archer

- Bombardier


Sacred Order:

- Armiger

- Battle Sister

- Canoness (Flavia)

- Carlinia

- Errol

- Gilseah Soulguide

- Hope (mentioned)

- Lady Etessa

- Novitiate

- Sister Militant

- Yeoman


Dwarves:

- Rearguard Sergeant (Alruna)


Demonspawn

- Candraphon (the 'Butcher')

- Cruetraxa

- Fellhound

- Hellfang 

- Hound Spawn

- Mortu-Macaab (mentioned)

- Tarshon

- Pitspawn

- Vilespawn


---------------------


Well, you made it this far. Hope you enjoyed reading! 

Because this was a lot more fun to write than I thought it'd be. 


Feedback is of course appreciated. Especially on the various skirmishes, because that was the point of the practice, both close-by (where Selena herself was fighting) and more distant (witnessing the fight between Errol and Candraphon). Something else I wanted to practice was intertwining the presence of a random pet into a conversation (hence the cat), as well as some more indirect applications of magic and their applications. The demons and their unique weapons and physical shapes (and the implications resulting from that) were also interesting to work around  - part of the reason I chose Raid for my writing practice.