Waking dispersed the dreams like mist. As Arynn lifted her head from the pillow there was nothing specific she could recall. Only conflicting colours, sensations, tastes. But even they drifted away with each heartbeat, until all that was left was the unsettling knowledge that they would come again when her eyes closed at night.
With what Selena had said, of Lyxa, Arynn knew these dreams to come from that dark Goddess. Why, remained the question.
Dipping her hand in a bowl of water beside the bed, Arynn splashed her face before running her hands through her hair. It wasn't as chilly as she'd been hoping, but it was cool and helped chase away the drowsiness she hated. A glance out the window, and she saw the sun just starting to appear over the horizon. The city would only be just starting to rouse itself into life.
Dressing was quick, in tunic and breeches, her armour left carefully folded in a locked chest at the foot of the bed. Sometimes it helped not to be seen as a hunter so quickly. Taking only her dagger she was out the door, hesitating with her fist raised above the way into Selena's own room. The hunter pondered a moment, before letting out a breath and leaving, moving down the stairs into the inn's common room.
"Would you like any breakfast m'lady?" the innkeeper's son called out from his position behind the bar, absently wiping at the surface. There were only a few others in here, slowly eating their morning meals and talking quietly amongst each other. They paid no attention to Arynn. Most everyone was still sleeping.
"On my return, thank you," Arynn said to the man, and earned a nod and smile in return.
Outside was brisk still, the last chills of northern night clinging desperately before the sun rose to dispel it. Arynn let a shiver run through her, skin prickling with goose bumps, and remembered the warmth of the south for a moment. The sandstone trapping all the heat in their cities decorated with streamers of silk for when night descended and plunged the deserts into a chill. She remembered the scent of jasmine and the caress of gentle hands along her back, before they started to curl around to her belly, and lower.
Smiling at the memory, Arynn leaned against the thick stone railing of the bridge. The princess of Xandera had been very pleasant company. Her father was less so; especially after discovering how intimate Arynn had become with her after saving her. Chuckling, Arynn looked down along the river. The story had followed her across all her travels, for gain or ill.
Now she was here. To hunt heretics when she should be fighting demons. Demons threatening her niece, and the last of her family. Memories of warmth misted away, and Arynn sighed again, thinking of how she was going to start. Demons hid, heretics did the same in plain sight. It was an entirely different style of hunting; more an investigation.
A boat started to pass beneath the bridge beneath her, and Arynn was about to leave, until she noticed the guards. Black robes, silver face masks, barbed spears; Xanderan Scroll Guards. The city valued its libraries and knowledge so much that one of the past Sultans had raised a special guard to protect it. They answered to only the head librarians, making even the Sultan unable to command them. What were they doing here?
She stayed, watching the barge drift into the ports, crew leaping from the boat to tie ropes to the docks. There were four in the gold and black robes of Xandera's libraries emerging from the barge's quarters now, pulling the tarp from a black wooden box, bound by silver chains, and the golden sun of Ilimm painted upon its surface. Arynn's hand twitched, almost snapping to her dagger; but she stayed herself. She was no match for six of the scroll guards, especially without her sword.
The box she had seen before. Had heard the tales of it, and knew the truth of it. The box held a Vampyr; undead creatures that served Lyxa. If for whatever reason the church or another organization wished to keep a vampire alive, rather than slain as they should be, they were kept in crates just like the one that Arynn was watching be unloaded now onto a cart, escorted by city guards. The libraries of Xandera held more than one in their vault like archives, all of them powerful.
Questions burned in Arynn's mind. Who was in the box? Who had organized it to be brought up here? And why?
Frowning Arynn watched the crate lifted onto the cart, a tarp pulled over it to conceal it from prying eyes. The guards looked nervous, heads turning to and fro as they looked over the area. More than once Arynn felt her gaze meet one of theirs, but it seemed like they were trying to make this all seem normal; not one spoke out to get rid of her, or even brandished their weapons. Nor did the Scroll Guard, who might very well think this was all normal.
The cart began to move, turning quickly to roll along the street, the single horse's hooves clattering on the cobbled stones as it pulled along its burden. Two of the Scroll Guard and a single librarian accompanied the cargo, with the guardsmen moving alongside it. It would raise a few eyebrows, but no one would think anything outwardly suspicious. Still, a bold move, as it would have been just as easy to keep the crate concealed and not raise any eyebrows at all.
Arynn was starting to wonder if the heretics wanted to get caught, or if this was some kind of official business. But what would whoever organized the crate's delivery stand to gain from a vampyr's presence?
The cart was moving along the bridge now, and Arynn kept her gaze ahead. Listening to the wheels rolling along the stones, she had to suppress a shudder as it moved just behind her, a guard passing within grasping distance. Her fingers flexed slightly, gripping the stone before her as the carriage rumbled onwards.
A turn of the head, not a single guard looking her way, Arynn watched the carriage and its dangerous cargo turn down one of the side streets. The last guard was not even out of sight when Arynn started to move, swiftly following the path laid out for her. Leaning against the corner a moment she watched the carriage and its escorts moving. Those few awake already and starting their days here on the waterfront watched with casual interest; the Scroll Guards certainly had that effect on people.
And Arynn found herself easily blending into the city as she followed behind, walking in plain sight, keeping her eyes always just off the guards and the carriage. She noted a small box sitting beside a doorstep. Picking it up, she didn't break stride, moving with purpose. Just a woman carrying out her morning errands.
New faces meant little with so many living inside these walls. Walls that had also recently seen such a sudden rush of those fleeing the outlying towns and villages. And her quarry did not make for any difficulties. It felt, too easy. Something felt wrong.
Soon enough they were driving the cart into a warehouse. As she walked past, Arynn glanced in. The place was nearly empty, despite being so close to the waterfront. There was a woman inside, in a dress too rich a colour to be a commoner, and too plain a design to be a noble. A servant perhaps, from the castle. Or a merchant.
If a merchant, it was possible they owned the warehouse that Arynn walked past with little more than a glance thrown her way before the doors were closed. However, if it was indeed a servant, the owner wasn't showing themselves. Tossing her crate to the side, a panel snapping off as it slid into an alley, Arynn kept moving.
Breakfast was going to have to wait for the moment. She needed to find who owned that warehouse. If Lairdon was run as it was in the past, that meant going to the castle. Turning back towards the river, Arynn picked up her pace. Behind her, the hunched and cloaked figure in the shadows frowned.
Leaning back in her cushioned chair, sipping at a silver chalice of rich red wine, Syndra watched the captain of the guard standing. He was blushing a bit now as he tied his trousers and buckled his belt. The naked woman who had just serviced him was wiping her chin clean of his seed and moving to the other side of the room where her clothes were piled.
"Thank you captain, for your discretion in this matter," the duchess said, and pointed towards the hunched figure standing by the door. Niasha held a small purse in her outstretched gloved hand. The captain took it, managing to suppress a shiver. He was thankful she had only just arrived. The captain wasn't even sure he could get it up with the hunchback watching.
With a final glance towards the duchess, a more longing one towards the whore who was currently clothing herself, the man nodded slowly and slipped out of the room. Niasha slowly stood then, despite the presence of the half clothed woman.
"He still believes it to just be a fancy box. Though, there were many other more subtle ways to bring the Blood Keeper into the city," the advisor said, moving to stare out the glass doors that opened to the balcony.
"Very true. And if it were not for this demon hunter, Arynn's, presence, I would have taken such an option," Syndra said, taking another sip of wine before her gaze snapped to the young woman about to leave.
"Stay Erika. I have another task for you this evening. Hopefully one you'll enjoy more," Syndra said, and the woman paused a moment, looking a little confused, before giving a slight bow and moving to sit herself in one of the few chairs offered in Syndra's office. Slowly folding one leg over the other, her skirt drawing up her thighs, she looked between duchess and advisor.
"If you mean to lure her to you through suspicion I'm not sure it worked. She barely glanced at the warehouse where the Blood Keeper was brought to, before walking back to the north side of the river." Niasha said, twisting her form to look back at Syndra, making the hunches pressing against her cloak ever more apparent.
"I'm surprised that you're so mistrustful of one chosen by Lyxa. Do you think our goddess is mistaken?" Syndra asked with a coy smile on her lips, but was surprised by the snort of laughter that came from under the cloak. Even Erika tilted her head in confusion.
"You mistake watching for chosen. Lyxa chooses no one unless they choose themselves," Niasha turned again to look over the city. "If you so wish to bring this woman under Lyxa's wing, then you will have to tread carefully. Lest she expose you before you are ready. However, should she be brought to us, then you will no longer have need of your husband."
Syndra looked over to Erika then, and gestured to the table. "This is where you come in my dear. I've heard the stories about this woman and her passions. Arynn is staying at the Early Flame Inn. Go to her room, and await her there. Tell her you are my gift for the evening," Syndra said, and smiled as she watched the interest cross the woman's features.
"Now you may go, do have a pleasant evening Erika, and make sure someone who talks sees you going in," the duchess said, earning another bow from the prostitute before she slipped out into the corridors of the overly lavish Loran Castle. When the door closed Syndra sipped again at her wine and looked to her advisor.
"You're investing too many resources and effort into this woman, when she could well be attempting to hunt you down."
Syndra shrugged and rose to her feet, walking to stand beside the cloaked woman. Together they looked over a city that was on the verge of doom, overburdened with the sick and hungry.
"The hour grows far too late for small moves Niasha. Our goddess has entered the fray, and I must gamble everything, or else watch it burn away anyway. I need her to hunt me down."
"There are safer odds to place your efforts."
"Do not discount the hunter so quickly. She may well have noticed you," Syndra said, and was amused at the stiffening spine she saw beneath the cloak.
Breakfast had been a simple affair, though Selena wondered where Arynn had gotten herself off to. The bar keep had said she was going to come back for breakfast, but after waiting for nearly an hour by herself, the witch had eaten and decided to explore a bit on her own.
Staying to the north side of the river, not wanting to risk being uncovered by the priests and order knights, Selena found herself in the market square. Though, it hardly earned the first part of that name anymore. As before she stared upon the sight of tents and filthy people trying to eke out a living without coin, clothes, and scarcely enough food.
A group of priests at one end of the square were handing out bread, protected by a dozen guards who kept their hands on their clubs. Crowds of people pushed to get more, some occasionally being beaten back by the thick clubs.
Keeping back and watching, Selena thought of her travel companion. Arynn had promised not to turn her over to the Order, but she was still a demon hunter. And she would not be so lenient on others she saw as heretics. Running a hand through her hair, Selena wondered what to do, now that she found herself in this city of enemies, driven from her home once again.
The woman was being watched by Lyxa, and the witch knew that the dark goddess had plans for her, but Selena wasn't so sure she could trust Arynn yet. Especially since she was hunting heretics, which would include the likes of Lady Syndra. Leaving Arynn unchecked could well diminish Selena of all her allies before she even had a chance to find them.
Turning from the scene before her, Selena continued to walk the streets of the city. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, if anything in particular. This place was so utterly foreign to her in its very concept; she didn't understand how people lived so crammed in to each other. Smells of industry, sewage, and cooking all clashed with each other into something entirely unpleasant on the nostrils.
On one of those back streets she found a man dressed in filthy yellow robes. Bald and with a long unkempt beard he looked at the people gathered around him with wild eyes. Selena stayed back; she'd seen eyes like that before. Those were the eyes of a fanatic, and by the way spit flecked his beard as he shouted, there was no doubt that he was one.
"Aalzgoth ravages our lands, slaughters our people, rapes our women. He does this because our faith is weak. Our city is run from the shadows by a harlot while her husband pretends to cling to power. We sin, we commit debauchery, and then wonder why Ilimm does not descend from the heavens to save us! We have only ourselves to blame," he shouted as people reached up to the skies from their knees.
Selena averted her eyes, quickly turning around and finding another way to move. If only faith itself was enough of a shield to protect yourself. She had the scar around her neck to prove it was no such thing.
A few turns away from the fanatic, Selena saw a woman leaning against a wall. Her rags cut and ripped specifically to showcase the curves of her flesh. She looked tired, and filthy, but still cooed and swayed her hips at those that wandered past. Offering pleasure, for the mere price of food. The witch had to pull her eyes from the woman, feeling pity, and not in much a position to aid her.
When a familiar call pierced into her thoughts, Selena started, heart pounding. She looked ahead, finding herself at the wall of the city. Vines were starting to creep up their heights, untended at the moment. On one, bright blue flowers were starting to bloom. The raven that had called out was perched on the edge of a house, staring at her.
"What do you want of me?" Selena whispered, though she wanted to shout it out. She knew better though. Lyxa demanded more than blind obedience, and shambling through life. Her tenants demanded individual strength, passion, thought. She promised nothing more than what you could provide yourself.
The raven called out again, and its wings flapped once before it took off into the skies, leaving Selena alone again. She had never seen such direct influences from her goddess ever. It frightened her, if she was honest with herself. And she always had to be honest with herself. Lying to others was but one path through life, deceiving yourself was but one path unto death.
The bright blue flowers caught her eye again, and the witch moved up to them, running her fingers over the petals. The scent was clean and pleasant. Another contrast to the city. Brows furrowing, Selena tried to recount what these flowers were. She had never seen their like before in Venshoft forest.
"Queen Igraine favoured the cora vines during her reign. Felt they livened up her garden. Of course, the gardeners hadn't expected the speed and aggressiveness with which they grew, and now we often have to trim them from the city walls, generations later," a man said from behind her, and Selena actually let out a short scream of fright, spinning on her heels.
The man was young, the starting of a beard growing across his jaw. He held up his hands disarmingly, the sleeves of his cream coloured tunic slipping down his forearms slightly, revealing hints of the dark ink of a tattoo. She had seen the light brown vest he wore before as well, with the small sigil bearing a candle and a heart beneath it emblazoned upon the breast.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you. You just seemed interested, and not many people who live in the city even know what they are, much less anyone from beyond our walls."
Her heart and breathing slowing back to normal, Selena blinked and looked to the man.
"How do you know I'm from outside the city?" she asked, and got a shrug in response.
"That cloak your wearing, and the dress. Pretty and fine enough to blend in easily on the southern shore. Yet your here, in the north," he said slowly lowering his hands, which brushed a satchel hanging at his hip. Similar to the one Selena herself carried. His words though caused Selena to blush slightly, her eyes averting for a moment.
"That and your interest in the flowers. Anyone who knows plants and are from the city knows the flowers rather well. We use them to help ease pain," the man said, and gestured towards the vines. Selena stepped aside to let the man walk up to the wall, where he pulled out a small knife to start cutting the flowers free, and slipping them into the satchel.
"Your with the Covenant of the Sacral Hand," she said, eyes widening a bit, finding herself face to face with another strict worshipper of Ilimm. The man merely nodded in response as he collected what he wished.
"I am. A novice apothecary. Do you know much about healing? Specifically against diseases," the man said, closing his satchel and slipping his knife away as he turned to regard Selena.
"I have some skills I've picked up along the way. Why?"
The man sighed, and looked to the flowers again, a sad look in his eyes. When he spoke there was pain in his words.
"Our chapel is nearly overflowing. The influx of refugees and the crowded streets have brought much sickness. We're low on supplies, and skilled apothecaries, some still being outside the walls tending to those villages not yet fallen." the man shook his head.
"Come by some time, we could use another set of hands. From the Covenant or not." the man said, and held out his hand. "I'm Leon."
Taking his hand and introducing herself, Selena looked back to the flowers as he wandered away. If the flowers eased pain, she might be able to use them to concoct a sleeping draft, or even a poison. The only problem was that she didn't know the doses. The local Covenant chapel would have the texts she needed to get that information.
On top of that, trapped and stranded Apothecaries might be a way to divert Arynn's attentions from her hunt. She had been complaining about not hunting demons. Of course... rumours of a heretical healer might draw her away from her main task as well.
Time. That's all Selena needed, to buy time for whatever her goddess was preparing. Now she just needed the right ear to whisper into the start spreading these rumours.
With a deep breath, she steeled her heart. Selena began to walk back to the fanatic on the streets.
The outpost was not large enough to hold all the soldiers the Baroness Desdemona was bringing to Lairdon with her. Many of them had to camp in erected tents just outside its palisade walls. The former mercenary captain turned noble of Aenkleth was of course accommodated in the outpost commander's personal chambers. It was not as comfortable as her rooms in Waentes, but she spent years sleeping in tents on hard ground. It was only to further cement her position that she even took the offered room instead of sleeping with her troops, most of whom were from her old company.
The letter from the king asking for her soldiers if she could spare them had her mobilizing her forces before the letter from Syndra had arrived. She remembered reading the later dispatch with growing dread; she had no wish to get ensnared in the duchess's games once again. Even if she did owe all she had now to the shrewd woman. In the end, it was what she had seen in the mines to the north that had her moving.
Laying in a bed that wasn't hers, with a voice not her own swirling through her mind, Desdemona found sleep difficult to come by. She tossed and turned, getting more frustrated, trying to ignore it. When it spoke with perfect clarity, breaking through her stubborn resistance, she shot up in bed.
The baroness did not need to question; she knew exactly what the voice meant. She moved to the door and crossed the hall, finding her lady-in-waiting. A quick push with her hand, and Hannah was rousing herself from sleep quickly, blinking.
"My lady, what is it?" she asked.
"Rouse the troops. Now," was all Desdemona said, earning a quiet 'shit' from the woman. Her time in Desdemona's service had certainly made the young noblewoman's language more colourful.
"And don't forget your own armour," the baroness said, turning to leave the room, a look of fear starting to pass over the woman's features, but she did as she was bade.
Back in her borrowed chambers, she pulled on her own armour and the dark blue tabard, marked her own crest: a raven perched upon a sword. Strapping the belt with its sword to herself, she heard the hurried footsteps of Hannah leaving to rouse the soldiers that all bore Desdemona's sigil.
Desdemona took her time, knowing Hannah would do her job well enough. Stepping out from the confines of the barracks, and looking about the small little courtyard penned in by palisades, towers, and two gates, Desdemona looked to the soldiers of the royal army. There were a few awake, standing guard at this post but a few days ride from Lairdon. Some playing dice by a campfire, a few glancing towards the now closing western gate that Hannah had just rushed through.
She looked to the soldiers playing dice, who paused as they saw her.
"Get the others up. We're about to be attacked," she said, not waiting to hear their response as she continued on the way towards her own soldiers. The two soldiers glanced to each other, and not ones to draw undue ire from nobles, left their game behind to wake the entire outpost.
Nearly at the gates, Desdemona stopped as a great roar ripped through the night. Nothing natural could have made the sound, both guttural and smoky. Cold shivers ran down Desdemona's spine as the cry carried on. Something was pounding upon the earth then, galloping, but far too heavy to be a horse.
"Demons!" one of the sentries shouted from the tower, before a spear burst through his throat. A scarlet spray rained down to the ground as the weapon was pulled free. The second guard was dropping his bow to go for the sword at his hip, and Desdemona called out a warning, but it went unheard; all across the walls the emaciated forms of the druden were crawling over the pointed tops of the palisades. Their screeches filled the air, mixing with that unholy roar that was only getting closer.
Desdemona turned, rushing towards the gates to get to her soldiers. The mirroring gates suddenly shook violently as something large crashed into them. The baroness looked over her shoulders as she pushed open the gates and saw a large, elongated head of dark gray rising above the walls. Thick boney plates ran down its snout, where a thick horn curled slightly from just above broad nostrils and a fanged maw.
"What darkness is this?" she muttered to herself as the massive creature tossed its head, something dark and acrid billowing out of its mouth like smoke, the large curving horns behind its head scattering the stuff. The wood the smoke touched immediately began to decay, the creature's hands rising upwards, a massive axe clutched in those meaty fists.
Arrows flew from the other side of the outpost, as archers on the towers above Desdemona loosed upon the demon, and the druden crawling over the walls, dropping down into the courtyard where the royal soldiers were gathering to try and form a defensive line. Their comrades upon that far wall already slain, their corpses slumped and bloody.
The arrows bounced off the massive creature's snout, and buried into thick flesh, but it gave little regard to the damage, its axe coming down upon the rotting wood, its smoke washing over the bodies. Desdemona watched armour rust, rotted flesh running down the walls as the bodies were consumed by the foul magic.
Moving quickly now she left the outpost, finding her own company of three hundred soldiers already awake and geared up. Hannah stood before them, looking at the outpost with mouth agape. Behind her the garrison of the outpost screamed, all them being cut down. Desdemona's eyes glanced to the side, at the forests around then, shadowy figures moving with startling quickness.
"Hollow square, archers in the centre," Desdemona shouted, moving with Hannah to the centre as the soldiers all around her formed up, three ranks of spear armed soldiers making a square, the archers making a third and fifth rank in the centre.
Tents and cooking stands were knocked over, uneaten meals spilled across the ground as soldiers prepared, many of them seeing the druden slinking through the woods, surrounding them.
"Archers, loose only when you have clear shots," Desdemona called out, her lieutenants carrying the commands across her ranks.
The side of the square facing the outpost watched as druden scampered over the walls, screeching at the soldiers that dared to stand against them. Then the gates were smashed open, the beast that had first broken into the outpost now storming out, its bulky body carried on four thick legs. It let out another roar, and all the soldiers felt cold fear running through their veins as this mighty beast stood before them. For a moment all was still, then three archers loosed at once, their arrows sinking into the flesh of the beast's chest.
Then it charged.
"Hold!" Desdemona called, her lieutenants calling the same as the front rank braced itself, butts of their spears steadied against the ground as the great demon and the druden charged forward. One with the force of a stampede, the rest moving like shadows, jerking and smooth all at once.
All the archers were loosing their arrows now, letting them fly at the rushing enemy. Druden fell and picked themselves back up, though many were also falling permanently. Black skull shaped clouds rising above those slain, but the charging beast was only getting angrier the closer it got, body riddled with arrows.
When it hit the line, spears snapped in two, only some of the points sticking into that thick hide. Desdemona's eyes went wide as she watched men crushed under the beast's feet, its axe smashing through shields and cleaving into soldiers who tried to stand firm. One man was cut in half, upper body falling backwards to the ground, strands of greasy intestine streaming out from his stomach as he screamed in agony. While his legs toppled uselessly to the ground, he clutched towards his ruined half, trying in vain to shove it all back it.
The line shattered, the druden slipping in where the beast was wrecking havoc. Leaping upon the soldiers, plunging blades down through brittle rusted mail, or driving straight into their faces. Blood spurted outwards, seeping through linked steel and soaking into the ground.
The other three ranks were holding, fighting back the druden, the fallen men of the company replaced by those waiting behind them. Those soldiers had no idea what was happening behind them, though the commanding officer's faces were pale whenever they glanced back, waiting for a command, knowing they were doomed once the line was finished.
"Hannah, ensure the other commanders hold, but should this line fall, get them to pull back. Retreat to Lairdon," Desdemona shouted above the din of battle, before turning to swing her blade, cutting the head from a drude as it burst into the centre.
While the skull cloud rose upwards, wafting over her arm, Desdemona glanced to her lady-in-waiting long enough to see her nod and shout out: "Yes Baroness."
With Hannah running to fulfill her orders, Desdemona took a breath, and plunged into the melee. She kept the right of the great beast, moving through the chaos of battle, her blade dancing amongst the fiends that stood before her while the great demon rampaged, twisting to slaughter any who dared stand against it. Broken spears and arrows jutted from its hide, yet still it stomped and cleaved. A pair of archers pulling back on their bows felt the bite of that axe, their armour providing no protection against its unholy strength.
Moving over mutilated corpses of her own troops, careful not to slip in the slick blood and severed limbs around her, Desdemona bent to grasp a spear still unbroken. A sword clanged against her side, nearly sending her to the ground, the pain of the impact sinking into her ribs. With a swift drive of her elbow backwards, she send the attacking drude stumbling, where a soldier grasped its mouth and raised a dagger, all other weapons lost. Despite the fangs sinking into his hand, the man roared out in defiance, dragging the steel edge of the dagger across the creature's throat, black blood spraying across Desdemona's back.
Pushing forward, she came up behind and to the side of the great beast. Looking up at its thick neck and the skull, she saw the sharp ridge of bone that ran in a hoop over its neck. Letting it move freely. Gritting her teeth, she took two steps forward, and thrust the spear upwards, aiming for the inside of that ridge.
Even along the long shaft of the weapon, she felt the crunch and ripping of tissue as the blade of the spear sank inwards, scraping across the inside of the creature's skull. A roar of agony burst out from its maw, making Desdemona's blood run cold, smoke billowing outwards to swarm over the soldiers before it. They screamed as their bodies rotted away while still alive, falling as putrid mockeries of themselves in life.
Yet still Desdemona pushed that spear deeper, sinking into the monster's brain, until it gave a great shudder, collapsing to the ground, knocking all nearby from their feet.
A great screech pierced the ears of everyone still living, as the druden suddenly stopped the attack, slinking back into the shadows with their major advantage gone. Getting slowly to her feet, ears ringing, fingers numb, Desdemona backed away from the fallen demon as its body began to decompose before her eyes.
As she stumbled back towards the centre, there was no cheering, no celebration. The baroness looked at those still standing, and despaired at how few the number was. It appeared to be only half, of the three hundred she had brought out with her.
"Officers, on me," she called out, weary and tired. But they could not stay. The druden were watching from the ruins of the outpost, staring over the corpses of the royal soldiers once stationed there.
The smell of dust and old parchment filled the dry air of the archives. Candles flickered within glass containers, the few librarians who worked here careful to keep even these small flickering flames from the brittle pages of some of the ancient tomes that lined the shelves. Shelves that strained with age and weight.
Arynn was not here for history however. She was here for more current records. This half of the archives was cleaner, the pages of the books less brittle, more white than yellowed. There were not many in the archives at the moment, leaving Arynn to her own devices as she looked through the records of land deeds through the city.
She glanced over unfamiliar names, of places she'd only glanced at. The organization was horrendous, jumping from one street to another and back again, with no real indication of how, or why these deeds were shoved in here. She had been here hours already, her stomach grumbling her protest. She regretted not getting breakfast.
Finally, she found it. The warehouse deed she spent way longer than necessary looking for. What was the point of organization and records, if it wasn't organized. Shoving her frustrated thoughts to the side of her mind, Arynn looked over the deed. Complete ownership, private, owned by Lady Syndra Loriak. Duchess of Lairdon.
Frown creasing her brows, Arynn stared at the deed, before slowly closing the book upon itself. If she wanted, this could be more than enough to hand over to the Burning Blade and be done with this damn hunt. But, this was no solid proof for Arynn. There were still possibilities, and she had no desire to hand an innocent woman to her death. The memory of Selena's accusation roused itself, and Arynn winced despite herself.
A sigh spilled from her lips as she slid the book back from where she'd taken it. She walked out from the castle and into the courtyard, frowning as she noticed the darkening skies. Avoiding the trail she'd picked up at the warehouse had taken some time, and it seems she spent much longer in the archives than she had anticipated. No wonder her stomach was protesting.
The journey back to the inn was not an overly long one, but her gait was slower with her mind running over what she'd learned today. None of it good. She had to look more into this duchess, into her friends and contacts. And more into that warehouse. Tonight though, she could use a good meal, a stiff drink, and the company of a lovely woman.
Smiling to herself at the last ticket on the list, she admitted to herself it was much more likely that she would collapse into bed and sleep away her eye strain. How did scholars do it, staring at words scribbled across parchment so much.
The inn's meal was simple, and thin. A broth with bits of pork floating in it, the broth more water than spices, the pork not as much a helping as she would have liked. It spoke to the city's state; if they were running so low on food already, how were they going to last in a real siege. Arynn sighed, trying to ignore the strange look the innkeeper was throwing her.
"Have you seen my companion?" she asked, hoping to get some conversation and information out of him if he was going to stare.
"She left this morning according to my son. Hasn't yet returned." Those were all she was getting out of him it seemed. Dropping a few coins on the bar top, Arynn gave the man a nod and started up the stairs to her room, trying to ignore his grin.
When she stepped into her room, the reason for the grin was made all too clear. Closing the door behind herself, Arynn looked to the naked woman laying upon her bed, clothes folded neatly upon her trunk. Judging by the amount of makeup around her eyes and the colour of her lips, this was a professional woman of pleasure.
"Get out," Arynn said after admiring the view a moment, but the woman didn't move, just smiled.
"No price for me tonight. A gift, from someone who's taken an interest in you." Both statements got Arynn's attention, the hunter moving over to the bed to look down at the woman, who propped herself up on an elbow. Her blue eyes were beautiful, only made more striking with the eye shadow. Her body smooth, curvy. It was tempting to run her hands over the woman, to feel the heat of her skin, taste the tips of her breasts. Instead, Arynn made a show of loosening the strings of her tunic, running from her neck to her chest.
"And who would that be?" she said, noting the whore's keen interest in watching her clothes come loose, eyes dipping into the shadow of cleavage. So, it seemed the woman did this for more than coin. And had an interest in more than men. At Arynn's question, the woman's lips curled into a smile.
"The Duchess Syndra."
Gently, Arynn climbed onto the bed, the woman falling again to her back as the hunter straddled her. She leaned close enough that the cloth of her tunic brushed the woman's breasts, could feel her breath upon her face. The subtle perfumes that would be too expensive for any other commoner to bother with.
"And who are you?" Arynn's voice had dropped to a whisper. She held herself up with one hand, the other gliding down the woman's side to her hip, feeling the heat of her soft skin.
"Erika," the woman said, biting her lip as Arynn's hand lifted from her skin, looking into the hunter's eyes. Yet the scrape of steel against leather didn't frighten her as Arynn's dagger lifted up, the edge of the blade gliding over her throat until the flat was resting beneath her chin.
"Don't think I threaten so easily hunter. You'd be far from the first to draw a knife on me," she said, her own hand lifting the bottom hem of the hunter's shirt, nails dragging over the hard flesh of her abs. It sent a shiver through the warrior, who gasped softly, yet didn't relent with her knife.
"Nor am I the first not to trust you, or your lady, I'm sure. I have questions," Arynn replied as her tunic was lifted ever higher, until she felt a finger sliding under the bottom band of her brassiere, sliding over the bottom curve of her breast, lifting the undergarment.
"You think I have answers then?" Erika's fingers continued to rise, until her hand was gently cupping a breast, earning another soft gasp from the woman above her.
"I have none. But, I can arrange a meeting," Erika continued, her hand moving from Arynn's flesh, to the dagger pressing against her own. Gently, she eased the steel away, and the hunter, still straddling her, moved it back to its sheath.
"In the morning," Arynn finished, leaning in then, pressing her lips to the other woman's own, as hands slid to her hips and slid inwards to work at her belt.