(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
“Steady, men!! Don’t falter. We’re on the verge of a victory!”
Damien shouted as loud as he could.
It’d been several hours since the beginning of the one long continuous battle with the undead enemies.
One after the other, enemies came. All of them were the same type of undead, with those light-emitting metallic panels glued on their bodies, carrying weapons and exerting ridiculous amount of power unfitting of things that were supposed to be dead. And to make matters worse, the enemies’ toughness progressively grew the more of them were taken down.
They were strong, to a point where it would have been curtains for the adventuring group if two or more undeads showed at once. Everyone fighting were genuinely thankful that this didn’t happen.
Currently, the group was facing their eighth undead Fiend. If these bastards were, for a lack of better words, normal, the each battle wouldn’t have lasted long. However, they exhibited some extraordinary skills and awareness that belied their mindless state.
And so, the casualty on Damien’s group was severe as a result. Already two members of the militia lost their lives, and further five were seriously injured while the rest suffered less severe wounds. Of the heavily hurt, first aid made sure they were not in any immediate danger but, it was not possible to count on them as a potential fighting force, moving forward.
The biggest problem facing the fighters was the fatigue factor; everyone in the group were feeling it. The worst affected were the Invokers. Casting a single Invocation spell sapped away stamina faster than swinging a sword, and both Helga and Taylor had been firing off one after the other without taking breaks. If they could just rest up a bit, and recover some of the energy.
The situation so far didn’t allow for a simple break. Everyone was nearing their limit. But somehow, one way or the other, they fought and endured. And now, they were pushing back what was presumed to be the last Fiend.
It’s lost its large and rusting war-ax and instead resorted to swinging its arms wildly.
Pushing the monster back with forward march of the shields, the vanguards stabbed hard with their spears, pinning the enemy on the spot.
As soon as they withdrew, Taylor put the finishing touch by casting a powerful Lightening type spell that caused fire to sprout from the insides of the Fiend.
It howled miserably, and collapsed into a smoking heap, spreading the disgusting smell around the corridor.
“That’s it. There aren’t anymore Fiends!!” Gillian shouted, as she plopped down on the ground. Her face was soaked in sweat and caked in dirt. It was a same story for everyone else though.
Coughing and waving the choking smoke away, Damien went over the front of the group to make sure the burning heap of the undead Fiend wasn’t moving. He pulled out a spear and poked multiple times, and got no response in the end.
Confirmation done, he too retreated a bit and fell on the ground as the strength of the legs gave way with the sweet wave of relief rushing over. His sword arm was numb from overexertion, his armor was tattered, there were numerous chips on the saber’s edge and the buckler tied to his forearm.
Feeling a bit of coldness around his lower chest, he reached in there with his weary hand only to find a puncture hole in the leather armor and a trace of blood from a graze on his skin. It wasn’t there before so, somehow a Fiend had gotten in a hit that was too close for comfort. If the hit were any deeper, then he’d be lying on the floor with blood leaking out from his side. Damien felt another bead of cold sweat trickle down his back as he understood how lucky he was.
He looked around to the rest of the group, while chewing on a small, dried medicinal leaf. It had an effect of detoxification, and Damien felt that the wound might get infected if left untreated as was. The group had only one Invoker capable of using Light Elemental Invocations in Helga, and she was far too exhausted to heal everyone. This was the best he could do for now.
He swallowed the bitter and crunchy leaf and decided to let the tired group enjoy the break in action for a few minutes, before rushing them out of this damned Sacred Acre. Not that he didn’t trust in Gillian’s ability of detection, mind you, but it was more about his fear of the unknown. His fear of this Acre and its undead denizens that weren’t here before.
Previously, the Fiends he encountered inside weren’t all that significant. They were mostly a rabble of weak creatures twisted by the ominous Aeterna leaking out from the deepest part of the cavern and thus, defeating them was rather straightforward.
But this time, the enemies were humanoid undeads. Worse still, undeads possessing the combat skills of their former selves. Something weird had happened when he wasn’t looking this past half a decade, and he didn’t like that thought one bit. Faster they leave, the better he’d feel.
“Lord Damien, how far, do you reckon, are we from the deepest chamber?”
Jonas asked Damien suddenly after approaching him silently. The question took him by surprise, partly because he thought he was alone, and partly because he didn’t expect that particular question.
“Why do you ask about that, Sir Jonas?”
“We’ve come this far. Wouldn’t it be prudent to see the matter to its end?”
Damien felt like throwing up a mouthful of blood when he heard this. Thankfully that was just his imagination but the nauseating migraine pulsing inside his head certainly wasn’t.
“Let us not get ahead of ourselves here, Sir Jonas. We have defeated all the Fiends in the vicinity but that does not mean there aren’t any more threats in front of us.” Damien raised his tired voice and said loudly enough so the others could hear him.
To this objection, Jonas snorted. Then he gestured at Phil, who was looking increasingly nervous for some reason.
“Mister Cosier, would you come over here and speak to us for a moment?”
For some reason, Damien’s headache grew bigger. The nausea was probably from the exertion on the muscles due to the continuous combat he had to go through. With a bit of rest and some food, he’d right as rain.
But the cramped facial expression on his long time acquaintance said that, never mind resting and food, there was more to come yet. He shook his head inwardly; no matter what, this time he was going to insist on turning back the way they came, all the possible repercussions be damned.
Phil dragged his feet but eventually he got close. Then the questions began.
“Mister Cosier, Phil, could you repeat what you told me before? The bit about these unusual undeads, and their possible identities.”
Jonas said in a cocksure tone clearly designed to assert his…. something. Quite frankly, Damien couldn’t see what this pampered fool from the Capital was counting on really.
Phil sighed in a resigned manner. He knew he shouldn’t have uttered that name while fighting back then. A small, minute slip up, were it not for the fact that he was protecting Jonas and the damned bastard had an attentive ear of a hare.
“Well, Phil? Time’s a wasting.” Jonas prodded impatiently.
Phil slowly chewed his words out.
“….I was saying, I’ve seen one of them before. Before he became that.”
A thick foreboding gloom clouded Damien’s mind.
“Where did you see it?” He quickly asked, wanting to hear some answers.
Frankly, he was surprised by the revelation – if he had seen someone he’d recognized, surely he’d be notified first? How the hell did Jonas get a hold of the info first?
“….Whew, right.” Phil cleared his throat. “One of the undead we fought, the one carrying that Dwarven Ax? He’s known Bendis, originally out of the village of Elster by the Northwest.”
“And what else, Mister Cosier?”
“Ah, well, he… had quite a bounty on his neck for various crimes. His wanted poster is plastered on The Boards of the most Association branches, including ours, in Lafayette.”
“Please go on.”
“….Bendis belonged to a bandit troupe actually. A big one. But they got hunted and cut down. Him and a few of his buddies escaped however.”
Phil stopped here, and scratched the back of his head.
Damien was confused. He was sort of relieved to hear that he didn’t cut down someone who was a friend of his friend but, so far he couldn’t see where this was going.
“What are you saying, Phil? Out with it, will you?”
“Well, after remembering the face, I also remembered the others too. I’m pretty sure of the undeads we’ve been fighting, it’s those bandits who escaped.”
Suddenly, it dawned on Damien. “….How many escaped?”
Phil slowly shook his head. “Ten.”
Ten. They’ve fought eight so far. If following a simple logic, then there were two still left. The logic being, those bandits that have escaped death somehow got to this Sacred Acre and became the Fiends haunting the halls of this accursed place.
“And, one of those, were the leader of the troupe. He’s not among the undead. Not yet,” said Phil.
“Are you suggesting that the leader is now a Fiend? He might’ve dodged that fate.” Damien countered.
“Not likely, seeing that other than the two, all the rest were the escaped bandits. Chances are…. there are two more lurking around somewhere in here.”
Phil was sure. He had to be sure. After a rookie mistake of muttering Bendis’s name when he recognized the rotting face which were then heard by Jonas, he needed to be sure as to not lose any more face. And seeing that the eight undeads were the former bandits he thought it was a sure bet.
Damien shook his head. This new info didn’t change a thing; he was still taking his men outside. The expedition was done, as far as he was concerned.
Then Jonas dropped this bombshell.
“It goes without saying, now there’s one more reason to explore the depths. We need to establish the why, why these desperate men fleeing for their lives became Fiends, before the same thing happens to other law-abiding citizens of the Empire. It is our duty. Your duty, Lord Damien, to protect your subjects.”
His headache grew. A small groan escaped his lips.
“You feeling alright, Damien?” Phil asked when he noticed his friend moaning uncomfortably.
“No, I’m fine.” Damien sighed. “Rather than worrying about me, worry about leaving. We lack personnel for this type of venturing. No arguments, Sir Jonas. If you wish to carry out your duties, then let us equip ourselves more adequately first and then return.”
Jonas was going to raise his disagreement but then, a panicked voice from behind interrupted him.
“My lord, my lord!! Something’s happened to the exit. It’s no longer there!!”
Everyone who heard that, watched their hearts sink into oblivion.
“What do you mean by that, the exit’s gone?”
One of the militia shouted in panic. All the eyes were trained on this one man. It seemed he was at the rear and saw the passage behind them disappear.
Damien too, looked at this man in stupor.
No exit? Can’t leave? What is going on?
He tried to stand, but then his legs gave way. The pounding headache became nastier and he couldn’t even breathe properly, all of a sudden.
Taylor shouted and ran to his side, while calling out to Helga. Damien wasn’t sure what all the flustered faces were for, as they gathered around him.
When Helga got near him, her face turned pale, and she immediately began casting an Invocation in a hurry.
An intense pain swooped in, wrecking Damien’s body the moment her spell activated. So much pain ran right through him and he almost fainted because of that.
“Damien, can you hear my voice? Do not fall into the abyss. Stay awake, man!! Stay awake!”
Upon hearing this, he knitted his brows. What are you on about, Phil? What abyss? Ah, it doesn’t matter for now. Let me rest for a second. Damn it, am too I tired or what?
From the edges of his vision, red and dark vines appeared out of nowhere and began to extend inwards. At first glance, they seemed like spider webbing but upon closer inspection, it now resembled more of cracks appearing on the surfaces of a marble floor.
And as the cracks spread, the less he could see and hear. The headache increased as well, to the point where it was impossible for him to endure it anymore.
Just like that, he fell into a deep slumber.
“M’lady, I’ve prepared some refreshments. Please drink it and rest for a while.”
Lizbeth raised her heavy head up from her hands, and met Delilah who brought a plate of scented tea and some snacks. The Dwarven maid placed the plate on the small bedside table near where her employer was sitting down.
“Thank you, Delilah.”
Lizbeth could only afford a small smile at the timely break; she certainly needed it. No doubt, last handful of hours had been some of the hardest for her to endure, and she was left quite exhausted by the time the morning sun began to color the sky reddish blue.
She took a long sip of the tea and sighed. Kaleena, still in a fitful sleep, lay on the bed next to her. Her wound may have been healed, but there was no way to replace large amount blood she lost, and the little girl’s life was still hanging in the balance.
Lizbeth was thankful for her daughter’s powerful Aeterna burst, which was bright enough to be seen by the patrolling village guards. That brought help over to the Lomax household in haste and got things moving. It also meant she didn’t have to send Rosy out to find aid, leaving her and her family vulnerable in case the assailant had accomplices hidden nearby.
Using the authority of his post as the vice captain of the militia, Rolf Harris-Shi promptly had security increased. Perhaps, it was after the horses had bolted but he too didn’t want to risk it. After all, he was in charge of the village’s security while Damien was gone, and he wouldn’t be able to stand the shame of failing his duty.
From the increased security detail, Lizbeth had received word not too long ago that a fleeing shadow was seen to the North, moving towards the Central Highway that led to The Capital city of Argos. A pair of riders were dispatched to pursue the target. No news arrived since then.
For now, she sat by the side of her daughter and waited. Although outwardly she appeared calm, inside she was a raging storm personified. She leaked out a powerful killing aura whenever she thought about those potentially responsible for this cowardly deed.
She was sure of Damien’s office being the target of the assailant – signs of disturbance were clearest in there. The masked man was looking for something, but she couldn’t think of what exactly. As a lord of the village and its surrounding lands, her husband had to keep a few important documents but none warranted a nightly raid of such enmity.
The sun’s rays entered Kaleena’s bedroom, and cascaded over the sleeping girl’s face. Lizbeth gently stroked her cheeks, afraid that if she was a little too rough, her sleep might be interrupted.
Checking her conditions, she noted that Kaleena’s breathing was still ragged and heavy, with small beads of sweat forming and then falling off her forehead. The pillow underneath was soaked from the lost fluid.
Rosy and Delilah took turns to either stay by Lizbeth’s side or to look after Kain. They brought boiled water, medicine, fresh rags to wipe the sweat down, changes of clothes and even brought news, if there were any. But most of the time, the somber mood of the house meant no one dared to speak a word that was deemed not necessary.
The dead body was removed from the residence by the militiamen, and was taken to the local butcher’s – he possessed a cooled storage that could preserve the remains so it might be examined at a later time.
Lizbeth took another slow sip of the tea, barely noticing the flavor that had a relaxing effect on her nerves.
She was very much aware of her current state of mind wouldn’t do anyone good. She was far too highly strung and angry to think rationally. Being level-headed and cool was what’s needed from her now, especially with Damien’s absence.
A firm knock ringed on the door, and the familiar voice followed.
“Madam, it’s Rolf. I bring news.”
“Please enter,” said Lizbeth, feeling her anger flare up again. It seemed that the effects of the scented tea was indeed regretfully temporary.
“Excuse me,” Rolf apologized as he entered the room. “First of all, we’ve secured the village and its outskirts and determined that there are no other suspects in the vicinity.”
Lizbeth nodded. “What about the pursuit?”
“That…. not too long ago, the men returned empty handed.”
“My apologies, madam. The men I sent were inadequate.”
Rolf lowered his head dejectedly, his usually energetic tail hanging low.
She shook her head. “No, it couldn’t be helped. The assailant was rather skilled, and it won’t surprise me to learn if his accomplice is just as so, if not more. Running away when confronted might have been in their plans all along.”
Sighing, Rolf bowed and said. “I shall take my leave. If there’s anything, please let me know. I’ll come as soon as possible.”
“Thank you for your hard work.” Lizbeth managed to give him a parting smile.
Watching the burly Caniduskin man squeeze past the bedroom door in order to leave, she suddenly felt more fatigued than before. Looking around the room, she was glad that Rosy and Delilah were with her. She was also glad that Kain didn’t throw any further tantrums and kept quiet. If her innocent son had cried ceaselessly under the current circumstances, she wouldn’t have known what to do. She felt her little boy was truly a godsend, as he was held quietly in Rosy’s arms – his inquisitive eyes darting here, there, everywhere.
The bed stirred, and Kaleena slowly opened her eyes. Lights in her eyes were weak, and her voice, just as so. “Mommy, is that you?”
“Yes sweetie, mommy’s here.” Lizbeth held her small hand and stroked it gently. “It’ll be alright, honey. Rest for a little longer. You’ll feel better soon.”
Kaleena’s wandering eyes searched for the figure of her ever-reliable father. She knitted her brows when the confusion set in briefly, but then remembered he was out on an expedition in the forest.
“He’s coming back soon.” Lizbeth smiled. But her anger was making her shudder. Suddenly she felt really, really furious at Damien for not being here, by the side of his family at a time like this.
Instead, he was out there, having fun and shucking his responsibilities as a father, as a husband, and as a guardian.
If he was here, then the assailant might have thought twice before intruding and hurt her precious child. If he was here, then, he’d be able to capture the fleeing suspect and interrogate him or her. Or they, whatever the case may be.
If he was here….
Instead, he went off on a wild goose chase. He himself said the whole trip was nothing more than an easy and safe opportunity to earn coin; he said that it would help the finances of the village.
He said, that he needed to go out there and enjoy himself every once in a while.
She tried hard not to grit her teeth in front of Kaleena. That would come later, in private. When Damien returns, she mused, he was going to get thoroughly beaten by her fist of fury.
Of course she was unaware of the deadly struggle her husband was going through at the same time. How could she?
Willing her anger to cool down, Lizbeth brought a cup of water that had medicine mixed in close to Kaleena’s coughing mouth. Helping her drink it, she examined the facial complexion of her child, and thought it looked a little better now.
“Do you remember what happened last night, sweetie?”
Lizbeth asked as she leaned in closer, stroking Kaleena’s hair.
This may not have been a good time, but she was curious about the cause of the timely Aeterna burst. She felt it was Kaleena who initiated it for sure.
However, she was too young to manifest an ability in controlling Aeterna just yet. It was a generally accepted fact that children of ages five and above only begin to display the talents at wielding the Elements. It was too early, unless she possessed tremendous natural talent.
Regardless of that, the fact remained so – if it weren’t for that burst of energy, Lizbeth would never have known about the assailant. Kaleena’s hidden potential may have saved her life, and that of her family. And for that, she was grateful. Grateful to her daughter, to her patron Goddess, and to Rosy too.
And it went without saying but if Kaleena’s talents were real, then obviously it needed to be cultivated to its fullest.
“….No, mommy. I can’t remember,” Kaleena shook her head slowly. “My head hurts,” she instead complained and made a sour face.
“It’ll be alright sweetie. Don’t you worry about anything, and just rest. Mommy will be right here.”
Smiling, Lizbeth kissed her daughter on the forehead and noted that her high temperature had gone down. That was good. Kaleena was recovering quickly. Another sign that she was talented – a person with a great deal of Aeterna residing within recovered faster than normal people.
Kaleena visibly relaxed, and closed her eyes again. Soon her breathing became steady, and she was asleep once more.
Meanwhile, Kain watched from the sidelines, observing and reading the heavy atmosphere. He had no idea exactly what happened but, after seeing a corpse of unknown man getting carted out of the house, he knew some serious crap had gone down.
There were blood, walls were broken, tables were upturned; even an idiot could imagine the seriousness of the previous night’s event.
He woke up when a burst of energy shook him hard. That was pretty hardcore, that sensation of enormous lump of power, boring a hole in his soul. Or some such like that. It was as if a loud firecracker had went off below his bed. What a racket that was.
Listening in from the hushed conversations of the adults around, Kain figured Kaleena had something to do with the so-called Aeterna burst. He understood very much that energy was the mysterious formless substance called Aeterna. Little Kal did have a lot of that stuff around her so the strength of the explosion seemed right to him, although he knew nothing about such matters to begin with.
He couldn’t help feeling a bit scared, looking at tense Lizbeth. She was normally a model of graceful calmness yet so deeply shaken as she was now, it was hard not to feel unsettled alongside her. Negative emotions had a way of spreading to other people in the same space, it seemed.
Rosy was oddly calm however; not as if she was disinterested, no, but more like oh hey, there’s nothing to worry about here anymore kind of calm. Delilah was a little more frantic which he thought was how one was supposed to be, after an attempted break-in that resulted in the said robber lying dead in a pool of his own blood.
Besides feeling scared, Kain didn’t know what else he, or for that matter, anyone should be doing in the current circumstances. Calling the cops was the obvious thing to do, if this was the Earth. But he was in a fantasy world, he was not so sure about an organization like the police existing in this world.
In his previous life, he had no run-ins with the shadier element of the society. The only form of violence he was exposed to, was in the form of a camping sniper taking potshots at him in a FPS MP matches. It was natural he wasn’t sure of what to feel.
One thing he did feel, was apprehension. Specifically, of his future. To elaborate, Kain held this grand delusion in his head, of which saw him living in a fantasy world where everyone and their dogs got along fabulously with one another. Sure, there were occasional troubles with monsters and such, but never with another human beings.
But now, the illusion was well and truly shattered by the event of the night. And it made him think of the future. The threat was taken care of for now, but what about later on?
Was there a need for him to follow one of the most well-trodden shonen trope of “Need To Become Stronger”? Couldn’t he just live a quiet country life, not worrying about stuff like killings and crap.
The more he thought about this, the more grumpier he got. Besides the fact that his life was threatened only a few months after his supposed reincarnation, now it felt like he had no choice but to become stronger if he wanted to live in the first place.
Not that he was against the idea of getting all powerful and all that, but there was a downside attached to that – getting noticed.
When one possessed power, it invariably attracts attention from those in the seats of power. Simply put, there will be men who would try to manipulate him, and there will be jealous men trying to make his life a living hell. Not trying to conceited, of course, but that’s how he was feeling at the moment.
He hadn’t really made up his mind on what he wanted to do after growing up in this world; but he knew that he wasn’t cut out to be a contestant in a Game Of Thrones, so to speak. Last thing he wanted was to get embroiled in some dastardly, secretive political maneuvering involving people dying in many horrible ways. His stomach wouldn’t be able to handle the stress, really.
But anyways, that was stuff for the future. Kain had to worry about the present first.
What did the robber wanted from his house? Weird thing, that, since his home didn’t have much of anything valuable – no gold, no fancy gemstones, no expensive art works, none of that. Nothing to steal here.
Or was it?
When Rosy was busy carrying him around, he got a good look at the state of Damien’s office. The large bookshelf was rifled through, books and documents were strewn about, the drawers on the desk pried open, their contents spilled out on the floor.
To be honest, it wasn’t an unusual to see such a disorganized scenery – Damien was bit haphazard when it came to tidying his room up. So it was par for the course, really.
But unlike before, there was a faint hint of the formless substance, Aeterna, present in the room. That wasn’t there before. Definitely not, otherwise Kain’d have noticed it. His eyes could pick up the substance lazily floating around people and objects so he’d have seen it.
From his observation, he more or less understood some properties of this Aeterna thingy. One of them was, that it didn’t linger in a place where there were no one around, or at least where there were no signs of living beings around. Well, not in such an obvious concentration anyway.
But inside Damien’s office, he saw a pale greenish substance softly floating around, escaping from a very thin gap on a wall. That color was new – Kaleena was usually surrounded by three or four different hues but even hers weren’t of green.
How mysterious, Kain mused to himself.
Could it be, that the robber was aiming for that?
Before coming to a conclusion, his tummy grumbled loudly first.
Ever since waking up many hours ago, he’d nothing to eat. No wonder his infant body was complaining. Feeling slightly embarrassed for not reading the atmosphere, he sheepishly looked around to see if anyone noticed his faux pas.
Everyone present in the bedroom was staring at him.
“I should feed him,” said Lizbeth, finally snapping out of the quagmire of anger-induced thoughts after hearing Kain’s belly asking for some motherly attention.
She silently chided herself for neglecting her son. She knew caring for Kaleena was important but for now the danger had seemingly passed by so it was only right for her to care for the boy too. And he had been such a good boy until now.
Taking Kain in her arms, she felt somewhat relieved, calm. She was glad no further harm fell on her family. In her heart, she once more offered a silent, heartfelt thanks to her patron goddess.