Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Black Wolf Rising. Chapter 5: The Final Whispers of the Dark

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.

"They're coming."

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.

Previous Chapter

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Black Wolf Rising. Chapter 4: Lairdon

The tall walls of the capital city loomed above them, casting their shadow across the few homes and into the wide fields that surrounded Lairdon. Arynn held Khali's reins in one hand, the other never straying far from the hilt of the dagger across her lower back. As the horse's hooves clacked upon the cobble stone roads leading to the western gate of the city, Arynn kept her eyes moving, looking over the tents that had been erected out here in grass and mud.

 "There's so many," Selena said quietly from where she sat in Khali's back, her hands grasping the front of the saddle tight enough that her knuckles were white. Arynn could only nod quietly as she looked at the people that had gathered here, and set up ramshackle shelters for themselves and their family. What few belongings they had shoved into packs spattered with mud. Not a one of them had much hope to their expressions. Even the play of the children seemed muted and forced.

Turning her gaze forward, Arynn noticed at least a dozen people gathered around the gate, four guards standing stood between them and the gates, gauntleted hands gripping tightly to spears. They shouted at the people to stay back, one dropping his hand to a club that hung from the belt around his hips. As the demon hunter came closer, people began to shuffle out of her way, noting the weapons, and the woman upon the horse. Even the guards frowned slightly as the saw the two women approaching them. Selena's dress certainly looked fine enough that she stood out from the commoners that had been pleading to be let in. The witch's cloak was still wrapped around the fallen succubus's sword, and hidden within the tightly strapped bedroll across Khali's rump.

One man turned, face red with anger and shouting, and seemed like he didn't want to move. Arynn ignored him, starting to walk past, though Khali took a bite at the man, making him stumble backwards.

The guards exchanged a look as Arynn stopped before them, glancing over her shoulder at what seemed to be new arrivals to the city, before turning her attention back to the guards. For their part, they couldn't decide whether to address the armed woman, or the one on horseback. One finally spoke though, looking up at Selena.

"The city is closed m'lady. No one gets in, by order of the King," the guard said. How many refugee's had they taken in already?

"Get me a priest then, from the temple proper, not a monk," Arynn said, grabbing the guard's attention. His brows furrowed slightly beneath the rim of his rounded helmet as he registered the odd request.

"No offense, but you don't look like an Order Knight. I doubt highly they will let you in," he said, but turned to shout back at someone beyond the dropped portcullis. The demon hunter noted a guard taking off at a brisk walk, deeper into the city. Seemed she had some weight to her words after all, or they did believe that Selena was a noble woman.

The pair of them waited there, facing down the guards. As time wore on, the gathered refugees began to see that there was no hope of getting in. In groups they slowly drifted away, to join all those others who had come here only to be turned away. To wait until the minions of Aalzgoth came for them all. It would be a massacre unless the gates were opened.

Looking over the many faces in their shoddy camp, Arynn didn't think she could bet on that happening. As one of the last departed the gate, Arynn reached out and firmly grasped her arm. The woman turned, her eyes showing fear and anger in equal values.

"Run south. As fast and far as you can. There will be no peace in these walls," Arynn said, and released her.

The woman stared at her a moment, frowning, before turning and rejoining the others. Watching her go, Arynn doubted it would be enough. So many of these people would die. Turning back to the guards, she tried to shut them all out of her mind. She had learned long ago not to take on the fates of too many, lest it break her spirit as well when she inevitably failed to do what she promised.

Selena watched the woman leave, and turned her gaze to Arynn, yet said nothing. The two stood in silence, alone in front of guards who became ever more fidgety as time wore on. All four trying not to look at the two women before them, or the gathering of refugees who had come to this city desperately seeking shelter.

As the sun crawled across the sky, Arynn was sure an hourglass would have emptied by now, when finally she saw the guard returning with an elderly man in tow, garbed in the dull yellow robes of the church of Ilimm. A stylized sun of bright yelled, wreathed in a ring of orange flame adorned his chest. He did not move quickly, and had to lean on a tall walking stick as he moved towards the portcullis.

Reaching into one of the saddle bags, Arynn pulled out a tube of copper, the ends turning green. Pulling out the stopper at one end, she pulled free a scroll of paper, yellow ribbons hanging from the ends. She moved to the portcullis, the guards stepped back from such an armed woman, and pushed the scroll through the opening towards the priest.

The aging man looked up at Arynn with a single raised eyebrow, before carefully opening the scroll. The ribbons dangled from the bottom of the sheet he held before him, eyes glancing first to the two seals of red wax upon the bottom, both imprinted with the seal of Ilimm. Above each seal, the signature of a high priest from the city of Porma. The ink a deep rich black, the first letter bordered with gilded gold.

"Open the way for her, she is to have free access to and from the city at her whim," the priest said, gingerly rolling the scroll back into its tube while the guards glanced at each other.

Refugees stared from their tents and shelters as the portcullis raised just enough to let Arynn and Selena into the city of Lairdon. The demon hunter felt a pang of guilt as she moved inwards and heard the portcullis slide shut behind her, the bottom prongs sliding into deep groves carved into the stone. Forcing the feeling down, knowing there was nothing she could do about it now, she instead looked over to the priest who had fallen in step beside her. The man looked up at the woman riding the horse quickly, before turning full attention to Arynn.

"Demon Hunter, I will admit your coming is most fortunate. This, invasion of our lands has pushed our resources to the limit, and even the order of the Burning Blade has found themselves on their heels since it began." Words rushed, a hint of fear in the pious man's eyes. Arynn couldn't blame him; she had seen what was out there. She wondered how much he truly knew of what was coming for him, or if it was just faith that kept him scared of the enemy of his God.

"I'm here to get help. The Convent of Saint Genevieve is under siege," Arynn stated, and she saw the immediate disappointment in his eyes. He nodded slowly, as if carefully pondering his next words while they walked, their pace slowed by whatever ailments the priest's body suffered. Selena watched him carefully, the way he seemed to favour the stick he leaned upon over either of his legs.

"Then I'm afraid you've come to find naught but disappointment hunter. The King can hardly decide on where to send his armies, the nobles are busy trying to defend their own estates, and the Order of the Burning Blade have been kept busy with unholy incursions on our very doorstep," the priest said, his already raspy voice growing even more so.

Arynn glanced over to him, frowning as they moved from under the gaze of the wall and the immediate residential area that ringed the city. The road suddenly opened into a great market, where once carefully erected stalls would have had merchants calling out to passers by to come and examine and purchase their wares, whilst the permanent shops sold their goods from the comforts found inside four walls.

What Arynn saw today was a far cry from that. Almost the same scene she had seen outside. Shelters and tents pitched on the cobblestone square, with people trying to find some semblance of life amongst the press of humanity. Shop owners ringing the square still tried to eke out a living, but there did not seem to be much flow into the businesses.

"Not many like to come by here. It is a reminder for what is happening outside, and most would prefer to forget, or simply pretend there is no threat. I would suppose that makes hope easier to grasp," the priest said shaking his head sadly.

"Certainly keeps the guard busy," Selena said, looking to the far side of the square where two guards holding stout clubs were chasing a young boy through the throngs of people. No one moved to help or hinder. Just, let it happen.

"Desperation is a dangerous thing. It makes me fear what you will do hunter, to complete your own journey," the priest slowly turned, clutching firmly at his walking stick.

"A lot of killing," Arynn said, glancing over as she heard shouting, seeing a shopkeeper chasing a dirty child from his front steps.

"Tell me. Where is the temple district. I would like to speak to the Order of the Burning Blade," Arynn said, glancing sidelong at the priest. He hesitated a moment when he noted that Selena had stiffened, hands wringing at the reins.

"On the south side of the river. It's not difficult to find, you can see the Cathedral from here," the priest said, pointing southwards where tall stone spires rose above the buildings that spread across the city. The man's hand shook as he pointed, holding it in place just long enough for Arynn to see where it was.

Offering a smile, she bowed her head, touching thumb and forefinger to her brows, and flicking them upwards.

"Thank you priest. We shall take our leave now."

"May Ilimm light your path hunter," the priest replied, returning the gesture of faith.

Selena merely nodded, not wanting to release her precarious hold on the reins as she started to follow Arynn back into the tighter press of buildings. People stared at them as they walked by. Suspicion, awe, fear, hope. The emotions Arynn saw in the faces of those around her ran the full scale of what people could feel.

Occasionally they passed patrolling guards, moving in no less than groups of four. Blue tabards showing a pair of golden stags upon their chests marked their loyalty to the crown. Swords hung from one hip, clubs the other. Arynn ignored them as she followed the streets southwards.

The smell of fish grew stronger until finally the buildings opened up into a broad street lined with short stone walls that fell into the depths of the Lora river that cut through the city's centre, east to west. She glanced up the waterway, noting the docks, warehouses, and crates stacked along the waterfront. Industry wasn't slowing down here by much it seemed. It could quite possibly be the only source of food and income left to the city with its gates shut tightly.

A barge full of people was burning turned away by a dozen guards armed with crossbows, the people shouting angrily at the guards even while the rowers began to steer the vessel back to the west to get out of city limits. Further along to the east, Arynn spotted the rising smoke from the trade districts on the north side of the river. Blacksmiths, masons and cobblers would doubtlessly be hard at work to keep the armies supplied.

Proceeding forward, Arynn crossed the eastern most bridge. The stone walkway arching high enough into the air to allow ships to pass underneath. At the crest she paused, looking over the capital of Aenkleth. To the east she spotted Loran Castle nestled on its rocky hill. The seat of royals and the nation's high council.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen a city so full of sadness," Selena said softly as she looked back to the north.

"I have. It's never a pleasant thing," Arynn said, pushing off from the railing of the bridge and starting the downwards slope of the bridge. Selena didn't have a good response to that statement, and simply continued to follow.

On the edge of the raised street which separated this southern half from the waterway, Arynn took note of a three storied structure with white balconies draped with carefully tended vines. Red lanterns glowed in some of the windows, and when the hunter passed by she could smell the faint smell of perfumes and incense doing a decent job of overpowering the reek of fish. Inside, one might even forget they were on the waterfront.

"Is that, a brothel?" Selena asked, a slight blush to her cheeks as the moved further along the street, glancing back to see the well crafted front of the building and its double doorway entrance.

"It is. But we have no business there at the moment," Arynn said, making a mental note of where it was. On the south side of the river it might well be worth her coin to take a visit. Cities like this always liked to segregate their populations. Nobles never liked to brush shoulders with the people who kept the foundations of a nation running.

Letting the thoughts slip away before she got herself riled up, Arynn found herself walking through broader streets. For carriages and litters that those with money enjoyed using. So they could wear fancy and uncomfortable shoes and not need to walk.

Entering the temple district was obvious. The two women entering another plaza, marble tiles laid in an elegant path towards the towering cathedral of sharp stone and more marble, spiked spires shooting upwards towards the sky and the sun. The light gray was made more colourful by windows of red, yellow and orange stained glass. Long planters sprouted with flowers tended by the monks of the cathedral decorated the plaza, giving an air of peace and tranquility to offset the power of the cathedral itself.

"Is that really necessary? And people say my Goddess is vain," Selena said quietly, causing Arynn to smirk, glancing up at the witch. The woman looked nervous, her eyes darting to every figure she saw in robes. No, she wasn't nervous; she was terrified.

Feeling Arynn's eyes on her, Selena looked down at the hunter and frowned. Arynn flicked her eyes to the scar again, before pulling her eyes away.

"It's not always about faith and worship. It's usually about power. Pleas to Ilimm, or the church, that one kingdom is more pious than another. More deserving of whatever can be bestowed upon them. From the church, money, support from the orders, and more clout to inter kingdom politics," Arynn said, and sighed. She certainly wasn't doing a good job at converting the woman.

"That sounds borderline heretical."

"Maybe. My faith is in Ilimm, not his representatives," Arynn said, looking away from the cathedral and finding a squat, simple looking chapel of sorts. Except the stained glass had iron bars in the windows, and the doors were reinforced with long strips of thick metal. The Chapter House of the Burning Blade.

"Isn't that the same thing?" Selena asked, raising an eyebrow in confusion.

"No. At least, I truly hope not," she said, starting to march towards the Chapter House. Selena watched the woman go, but one look at the two dull orange banners with a burning sword stitched into the middle was enough to keep her where she was.

As Arynn walked away, Selena's attention was taken by the caw of a raven. Glimpsing upwards, she saw the bird taking a perch above the door of the cathedral. The witch furrowed her brows, and carefully dismounted Khali.

On her own for the moment, Arynn walked up to the chapter house, and grasped the thick metal knocker, hitting it against the door firmly. She waited for someone to come to her, when a whinny caught her attention. Turning her head, she caught Khali's nose in her cheek, the destrier snorting in annoyance.

Frowning, Arynn looked for her companion, but saw no sign of her amongst the people wandering through the plaza. A quick lift of the bedroll to peer inside, and Arynn noted that the cloak and sword it held were no longer hidden there. She was about to go look for Selena when the door opened. The demon hunter found herself tilting her head slightly upwards at the tall man who was in the frame. Broad shouldered and with light close cropped hair, the man lifted a single eyebrow as he spotted the woman standing out, arms folding over his chest.

"What can I do for you hunter?" the man said, voice gruff.

"I was hoping to speak with the chapter marshal. I'm in need of aid," Arynn said, taking a partial step forward. The man didn't move, just let out a sigh, his shoulders relaxing if only a bit.

"That would be me for the moment. Knight Captain Anton," the man said, and moved out from the doorway, a single hand sweeping inwards. Arynn took the invitation, Khali following just behind into the brief courtyard, trying not to let any nervousness settle in when she heard the door shut and the bolts slam home behind her.

The acting marshal was soon beside her, gesturing for Arynn to follow him. A young boy came to take Khali's reins from her, whispering quietly to the war horse as he was led towards the Order's stables. Anton's sandaled feet slapped against the ground as they moved into and through the chapel hall of the chapter house proper, towards the back rooms that held the kitchens, dorms, armouries, and offices that the Order would need to run smoothly. A few of the Order's knights were knelt in prayer in the circular chamber, facing towards the central altar that curved around an embossed sun set into the floor.

It was to one of these offices that Arynn was led. Like the rest of what she'd seen so far it was plainly decorated. Only an icon of Ilimm hanging from a single nail in the wall. The desk was covered in sheets of parchment, covered in writing. Even with a quick scan, Arynn could tell there were multiple hands that penned whatever documents were in a mess upon this man's workplace.

More interesting to her was the map of Aenkleth stretched across the centre. Wooden figures were carefully places around the drawn country; what they represented Arynn couldn't quite tell. Like everything else they were quite plain, only the colours of paint upon them setting them apart. Anton sat down behind his desk and leaned forward, resting his elbows upon the solid oak before him.

"You've come seeking aid, as you say. There's none I can give. I invited you in here though because I want to ask of your aid instead. We are fighting the same battle I can guess," the marshal said, judging each word carefully.

"I was seeking aid on behalf of the Convent of Saint Genevieve. A village nearby was destroyed, the people slain or brought into the Sluagh. The Convent itself is in danger, with only a handful of mercenaries to defend it," Arynn said, trying not to get off track of her original mission here. She doubted it would stay that way.

"If they have any armed soldiers, of any weight, then they are better off than most. I have no knights free to go to their aid at this moment. They will have to wait, because this city is about to come under siege," Anton said, his jaw firm.

Letting out a long sigh of her own, Arynn sat herself in the only other chair in this office. Stiff and uncomfortable, she leaned forward, looking towards the wall. Things were just as bad as she had feared.

"Galloping across the countryside saving peasants from damnation. What do you need of me then?" she asked, finally turning her head to look Anton in the eyes.

The acting marshal met that gaze for a moment, before looking down at the map, gesturing for Arynn to come look as well. He pointed to the village that she had passed through the day before, finger tapping on the map a few times before he spoke, but her heart was already sinking.

"There's a village here I've not been able to send any of my knights to. I fear it's in danger of coming under attack, and last I've heard the people were not willing to uproot and flee."

"I passed through there. It's gone, everyone dead or risen," Arynn told him, and the marshal slammed his fist into the table. He said nothing, just stared.

"Not that there is anywhere for people to flee to," she added, and Anton looked up at her.

"Have faith in Ilimm. There is always safety from the darkness. Light always pushes back shadow," he said, slowly uncurling his fist as he looked down at the map. Reaching to the side he picked up a red marker and set it upon the village. Suddenly the amount of red dotted across the map was terrifying. Especially the ones set upon the larger towns and forts across the country.

"Ilimm cannot fight this entirely for us. We must carry our own burden as well."

"Very true hunter. Then there is one other thing I must ask of you, for I know you'll want to return to that convent as soon as you can, much as I'd wish you to stay here. There is payment in it for you."

Arynn lifted an eyebrow. She had not expected that; it was not often the order put coin forward to pay for the services of one such as her. They liked to do it all themselves.

"Ask, but I guarantee nothing. I have, personal attachments to the convent in question," she said, and thought she saw Anton's face darken slightly as the words left her mouth. But his expression was neutral when he spoke next, and she couldn't be sure if she saw it or not.

"In the face of such darkness, there are those that think heresy is the way to turn, the way to survival. Me and you know that survival is not enough, but for them damnation would be better than death."

"You want me to hunt heretics? Isn't that your job?" Arynn said, leaning back, arms crossing over her chest as she studied the man before her. This time she didn't imagine it, as his features curved into a frown.

"The problem is that the heretics hide amongst the nobility. And they are good at hiding such things. They know us, they do not know you. You might be able to rid this city of the rot starting to spread from within before its taint dooms us all."

Arynn thought of Selena, back at her cottage, having saved the life of a woman now being asked to hunt down anyone who worshipped Gods of darkness. And before that night, she might have easily accepted the contract. Given the circumstances, she might have done it for free.

"You know of my trade, so I'm sure you know of my fees. Due to circumstances, and that I won't be hunting demons proper, I'll only ask for half," Arynn finally said and leaned back as much as she could in the stiff backed chair.

"You will get your payment on delivery of these, heretics. I will not let the safety of the people within this city be threatened by the very ones who should be protecting its sanctity."

A swift nod, and Arynn rose to her feet. She glanced down at the map, at the red markers, and wondered if tonight she shouldn't just ride back to the Convent. The only problem was, she didn't know how many of the enemy were out there. And these people did need her help.

"Tell me of a good inn, and I'll get started," she said. Her response was a simple tight and controlled nod.


Leaving Khali behind to trot carefully over to Arynn's retreating form, Selena briskly walked towards the cathedral entrance, holding tight to her chest the bundle that hid the succubus blade. She was nervous entering the cathedral, hoping the sign she saw was not just a random raven. Her eyes darting all around her, fearful of the monks, the gatherings of people here to pray, the priest reading quietly in the centre of the large circular room, gaudily decorated with murals and statues and marble columns displaying the writings of Torace the prophet.

Had she been a worshiper herself, Selena might have called it beautiful; but she had felt the dark face of faith upon her. It made the entire building seem like a charade.

As it was, this was not a time for organized prayer. It was open for the public to come and speak to their God. Why Selena had been drawn here, she didn't know. She was not arrogant enough to believe she fully understood Lyxa's plans, or to think she could speak with her directly. The witch let her eyes start wandering over the people here. They all seemed like nobles, or at least richer common folk. Those that could get to this side of the river without drawing suspicious glares from all the guards. It seemed her dress was just fine enough to have avoided drawing that suspicion onto herself.

Moving slowly up one of the aisles between the curving rows of wooden pews with curling gold lines embossed into the armrests, Selena let her eyes sweep the area. There were guards standing at either end of one particular row. Unlike the guards she'd seen earlier, these ones had crimson sleeves hanging from their tabards, and didn't have clubs upon their belts. The witch was trying to guess what was different about them before noting the middle aged woman kneeling at the row they were guarding.

Selena felt her breath catch, memories flooding through her mind as she gazed upon someone she never thought to see again. From when she had nearly been lynched in her old home. Syndra Loriak, the eldest daughter of a Aenkleth baron, now here in Lairdon. She was alone, save the guards that were undoubtedly there for her.

The noble's head lifted then, slowly turning and catching Selena's surprised gaze, cloak held tightly to her chest. Syndra smiled, and rose to her feet. The smile was as beautiful and alluring as ever, though the laugh lines were deeper than Selena remembered. She moved with grace and purpose, the guards flicking their gaze towards her, and moving to follow her, but giving her enough space for some semblance of privacy.

The crimson dress she wore was much more low cut than Selena believed was modest in this country, but Syndra had never been a very modest woman. The shadow between her breasts drew Selena's attention for just a moment before the noble woman was standing before her.

"It's been a long time Selena. I would hope you are well, but I've heard the whispers from black beaks," she said, revealing what the witch had suspected for some time. Her voice was rich, smooth, and just like those years before when Syndra had gotten Selena cut down from the gallows, she felt herself enchanted by them. Looking into the woman's eyes, she noted the few crow's feet not quite concealed by the cosmetics she wore.

"I was called here. I've brought a demon hunter with me. The Goddess has some interest in her. I can feel it," Selena said, keeping her voice at a low whisper and resisting the urge to glance towards the almost bored looking guards.

For her part, Syndra's eyes widened with surprise at the first piece of news, but she quickly regained her composure, her eyes now lowering to the wrapped up sword.

"And what is this that you bring?" she asked.

"A blade from a hand maiden," Selena said, pushing the bundle forward. Syndra frowned slightly, but took the cloak and its contents. She nodded slowly.

"So she has drawn her own line in the sand. The pieces are not yet entirely in place, but soon." Syndra said.

As she spoke, a woman limped over towards them, hunched over in her long black cloak that trailed on the ground, gathering dust and dirt. There was a hunch to her back that made Selena pity her.

"Duchess. Your appointment is soon, we can not tarry," she said, her voice deep. When she glanced to Selena, the witch thought she saw the burning red eyes of something inhuman for a moment, before it was gone, as if never there.

"Of course Niasha. Selena, send word when you and your companion have found a place to rest your heads. I will call upon you when the time is right. Hopefully, it is sooner rather than later," Syndra said, settling one hand gently on the witch's shoulder, and carefully running a thumb along the edge of her scar.

With that, the noble woman turned, and started to walk from the cathedral, leaving Selena a little stunned that she had an ally in the Duchess of Lairdon herself.



With that call across the plaza, the demon hunter slowly turned to see Selena running towards her. The witch did not have the sword with her either, which only made Arynn's frown deepen. Either Selena had hidden it somewhere, or she had an ally Arynn didn't know about. One that the hunter was supposed to find and expose. If not outright execute.

Catching up, the witch took a moment to catch her breath, before glancing about with some concern.

"Where's Khali?" she asked.

"Stabled. With the Order. Part of my payment for services to be rendered," she said, starting her walk again towards the inn that Anton had recommended. Not very pricey, but decent rooms and good food, and while he hadn't stated it, it wasn't far from the brothel.

"Services? I thought... are there demons in the city then?"

Arynn snorted in response, walking through the streets with Selena catching up beside her.

"No. The order has decided that I should hunt down heretics for them. Not a unique contract, but given the circumstances I believe my skills could be used elsewhere. Still, it's something to do to buy time. Time to weasel my way into someone else's good graces and get those troops," she said, and then glanced to her side.

"I won't turn you in. I still owe you my life," she said, but made no mention of the sword, or the potential contact Selena had in the city.

The witch nodded, and they continued their way in silence.

As night descended upon Lairdon, the two had their rooms, both retreating to settle down and rest. It had been a few nights without a proper bed for Arynn. Selena though leaned against an open window sill, looking into the black eyes of a raven. It let out a cry before stretching its wings and flying off into the night, towards Loran Castle.

Syndra smiled, leaning against her balcony railing as the raven landed, and glanced back to the tall cloaked figure standing near the glass door that led into her chambers.

"See Niasha? The woman can be trusted," the duchess said, but the straight backed figure said nothing, just looked out over the city. Where Arynn tossed in her sleep, covered in a warm sweat as her dreams were filled with passion and blood.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Black Wolf Rising. Chapter 3: Witch in the Woods

The scent of various herbs intermingled together to create their own unique presence that slipped first into the odd dreams that plagued Arynn’s mind. Dreams and imagery vivid as reality collapsed into a mist that wavered at the edge of consciousness before they became but lost figments.

A groan of pain spilled from her lips as she became aware of the aches that throbbed through her chest, leg, and head. Her eyes stayed shut as her mind took in the sound of a crackling fire, and the warmth that bathed her, and the brush of a fur lined blanket against her naked skin. Something was wrapped around her leg tightly.

Slowly opening her eyes, Arynn looked around, finding herself laying in a bed against the wall of a cottage. As her vision became clearer, the blur of sleep fading, she noted that the walls were at once hewn by human hands, and grown. The natural curves and swells of a tree mingling with the straight cuts of a saw. Sunlight struggled to get in through the dusty windows, ivy both inside and out letting only strands of light to stab inwards, leaving only a few candles left carefully on shelves and tables to light the abode.

Confusion and concern swirled together in Arynn’s mind as she sat up, supporting herself on an elbow, groaning at the movement in her back. The blanket falling from her shoulder let cooler air wash across skin that was starting to feel too hot. Propped up, she continued her scan of the cottage.

There was sparse furniture, only a desk covered in parchment with a few ink pots and quills to the side, a few shelves littered with strange odds and ends, a counter that was growing out of the wall though the top had been cut into a perfectly flat surface, and a table with two chairs on either side. Herbs were everywhere in the place; dried, freshly diced, or pulled from the ground. Those were the scents that had broken into her mind.

With one hand keeping the blanket up at her chest, Arynn slowly swung her feet outwards. She spied her gear laying in a neat pile at the foot of the bed. Nothing seemed to be missing. Her tongue slid across dry lips, making for perfect timing when she found a wooden cup and a clay pitcher nestled carefully on the floor beside her.

Lifting the pitcher she sniffed at the contents; just water. Ignoring the cup she brought the pitcher to her lips. The water was cool,  refreshing as it splashed down her throat. As she drank, a raven’s cry almost made her choke and drop the pitcher. As it was, she set it down carefully, eyes moving to the window from where the sound had come.

The black feathered bird was perched upon the window sill. It tapped at the glass with its beak, as if to try and get Arynn's attention. Wiping a forearm across her lips, Arynn watched the bird, its eyes gazing at her through the pane.

The cottage door opened with a creak that pulled Arynn's attention from the window and the raven outside. A woman in a long dark green cloak stepped inside, a basket of herbs in one hand, blonde hair falling from within the shadows of the hood.

"You're awake," she said with a friendly voice, with a hint of a harsh rasp. Her free hand rose and drew back her hood, revealing pleasant features, and a ragged scar across her neck.

"Where am I?" Arynn asked, shifting in the bed, pinning the blankets to her upper chest with one hand. She was surprised when no pain flared in her leg.

"My home, in Venshoft Forest," the woman said, the second after a moment's pause. She pulled off her cloak and hung it upon a peg that grew out from the wall to accommodate the wool burden. Beneath it was a simple dark wool dress that clung to her curves.

"You saved me then. My thanks. But, I would know my saviour. My name is Arynn," the Demon Hunter said, bowing her head slightly. The woman paused in her approach to the bed, hesitating before giving an answer, her fingers absently tracing along her throat.

"Selena," she said gently and finished her walk to the bed. Carefully she took hold of the sheets and glanced up to Arynn, before pushing them back to reveal the hunter's leg, and the bandages wrapped around it.

In silence she unwrapped the bandages, Arynn letting go of the blankets considering what was unveiled by Selena just a moment before, letting the woman push them off her patient entirely.

As the bandages came free, Arynn stared down in wonder at her leg. Where a gaping wound should have been, was only a fine white scar.

"How long have I been here?" she asked, and Selena looked up.

"I found you last night, you've slept through the morning," she informed the hunter who blinked. It began to sink in; this woman was a practitioner of magic. The abode itself was certainly a strong hint, but this kind of healing did not happen without the aid of one of the Gods. Up here in Aenkleth, that meant the woman was either an apostate, or worshipped one of the dark Gods of Hell. Neither of which was good for Arynn.

Her sword was all the way across the bed. She had her bare hands, but she wasn't sure how quick the woman would be with her spell craft. Selena's eyes snapped up to Arynn.

"I could have left you out there. It was tempting. People doing what they thought was good gave me this," she said, fingertips gesturing to the line across her throat. This close, Arynn could see it was the scars of a noose.

"You demon hunters are even worse. Hunting and killing things that don't follow your Gods without trying to understand those you slay. This is my home hunter, and I will emerge from it alive no matter your actions. No matter that Lyxa wishes you alive for some reason," the witch said with narrowed eyes.

Arynn had her answer though, and lay back, pulling the blanket over herself again. She thought of the raven that had woken her last night, warned her of the druden attack just down the road. The bursting skull of the drude that had tried to kill her. Pieces falling into place, Arynn looked to Selena.

"It seems I find myself with strange allies in these dark times," she admitted, partially for immediate practicality. Partially because she knew Lyxa and Aalzgoth were not friends, and using the forces of one against the other could only be beneficial.

Even as the words left her mouth though, Arynn could not help but feel a clench of nervousness. If the witch spoke truth, then one of the dark Gods had taken an interest in her. Selena grunted as she stood, moving towards one of her counters. Her hips swayed gently with each step and Arynn leaned back. The witch had seen her utterly bared, she felt it fair to savour a peak.

As Selena grasped a string of vine like herbs hanging before her, chopping them into fine slivers. A sweet scent flowed through the cabin as oils flowed out onto the counter top. Selena glanced over her shoulder, and Arynn let her eyes move upwards.

"It seems your reputation was not entirely out of proportion," Selena said gently, and at this Arynn frowned. She did not have a reputation in the north as far as she knew, and very few knew much of her down in the south, save those with the coin to afford her services. Demon hunter's often worked alone and in the shadows.

"Do not look so surprised. I've heard enough whispers from the beaks of ravens to know of who you are. You've been watched for some time now from my understanding," Selena said, taking five strips of cloth and laying them carefully in the spreading puddle of oils.

"By what?"

"Spies. Demons. Ravens. I don't know the specifics, I'm just a forest witch."

Carefully Selena began to roll up the now pale green bandages, forming tight cylinders that she carefully tied off with a slip of red ribbon. She then carefully slid them into wooden tubes and sealed the ends with leaves tied into place. Taking a nearby candle, she snapped her fingers, lighting the wick with a flame that sprang from her fingertips.

"Why?" Arynn couldn't help but ask as she rose from the bed, letting the blankets fall from her form.

The only response she got was a simple shrug, and the hunter began to dress herself, though she did note how the witch took a peak over her shoulder before resuming her work. Tilting the candle she ensured no air would enter her tubes as wax dribbled over the edge of the leaves and placing each of her five containers on their sides to let the wax dry.

"We should leave as soon as you are ready," Selena said suddenly.

"We?" Arynn said as she gathered her weapons and slid them into place after a quick inspection to ensure the witch had done nothing to them.

"I've killed druden now. Whatever silent truce I had with the minions of Aalzgoth is over. It will not be long before they come for me, and I have no desire to be amongst the Sluagh. Besides," Selena turned then, staring at the hunter before her, eyes narrowed. "You owe me your life."

"Strange allies indeed. Where's Khali?" Arynn replied, adjusting the belts holding her weapons to rest comfortably.

"Your horse? Outside, probably munching in my garden, the beast," Selena said, testing the wax on her tubes with a single finger. Seemingly happy, she slid them into a satchel and slid it over one shoulder before grasping her cloak.

"There's still a lengthy ride to Lairdon," she warned, and Arynn nodded as she followed the witch out the door, the other woman slipping into the long cloak for travelling. Taking a hold of the twisted stick that served as a latch, Selena opened the way to the outside.

Arynn was the first to step over the threshold and in the sunlight that broke through to light the forest's floor. The trail that curled from the front door and into the forest soon vanished, hidden by fallen leaves and grass. Arynn doubted many would be able to find the witch out here in the depths of this far stretching forest. Just to her right, penned in by a simple wooden fence was the mentioned garden. Various herbs and vegetables were spouting up from the dark soil. And in its centre, munching on a head of lettuce, was Khali. The destrier snorted and looked up at Arynn, and began to make his way to the opened gate.

Soft whispers caught the hunter's ear, and she looked over her shoulder. Selena stood by her front door, fingers pressed gently against the entrance of her home. Soft green light ebbed out from her fingers and soaked into the wood. Branches twisted with deep groans and curled into the doorway itself. Without magic or a good axe, no one was getting inside. Arynn felt a shiver of nervousness run its cold finger down her spine.

Clicking her tongue behind her teeth, Arynn called Khali over, the horse letting out another grunt as he left the garden. Selena sighed at the sight of plants broken beneath the war horse's hooves.

"I don't suppose you have a ride for yourself," Arynn said as she grasped Khali's reins firmly, earning a snort from the beast.

"No. I've had little reason to travel for some years now," she said stepping towards the horse and Arynn nodded.

"Best we walk then. No need to wear Khali out," Arynn said, but kept a hand on the reins, turning to walk with him down the path. "Besides, if you can't ride, and I don't know where to go, walking will be better for everyone."

A rustle of branches caught her attention, and the hunter's hand flew up to the sword jutting over her shoulder. A single smooth motion had the silver edged steel sliding free as her eyes glanced amongst the trees that suddenly seemed too crowded.

It wasn't the druden, they never made a sound until they were upon you. The smell of rot that weaved through the forest answered Arynn's question for her. Just as Selena had feared, the Sluagh had found them.

With no sounds other than their footsteps, the undead slowly came into view. Flesh hung off their bones as slack faces stared at the victims that awaited them. From all around they came, the two women turning slowly to see more corpses walking around the cabin they had just left. Their stench was almost overpowering, brown blood crusted to their forms.

Neither Arynn or Selena said anything, the witch drawing a small dagger from within the confines of her cloak, while the hunter drew her sword. She couldn't fight them all, though most held no weapons.

"Get on the horse," Arynn said firmly without looking at the woman who had saved her.

"I don't know how to ride," Selena reminded her.

"Doesn't matter, just get on," she said, the first of the creatures now stepping free of the tree line, a fine blade held firmly in its hand. It must have been a soldier once, judging by the armour it was clad in, a great crack in the chest showing a possible cause of death.

As Selena climbed up into the saddle, Khali bared his teeth, letting out an angry snort at the approaching dead. Arynn though leapt forward to the nearest one, the dead soldier. Blade rang out against blade and the dance of death was upon them both.

Silver steel scraped against steel as Arynn swung her opponent's blade outwards. A quick twist of forearms and wrists brought her blade crashing down onto the sluagh's elbow. The sword's edge bit deep, pushing mail into flesh but not severing the arm. Thick brown blood seeped through the rings, and the creature launched its head forward for a brutal head butt.

Meeting the strike with the pommel of her sword, she watched the creature's nose crush inwards. It showed no pain, no concern for its well being. She had to turn, blocking a strike from the side, and kicking the top of its knee. Bone gave way and a long slice to its neck nearly took the creature's head off. More gore spilled down its front as Arynn pulled her blade free. The edge scraped against the sluagh's spine, pulling it forward. Yet still it did not fall into a true death.

"Selena, go, now," Arynn yelled, kicking the cracked chest plate to knock the creature back, and spun to meet a second. Her sword whistled in the air, and lopped an arm off in the mid forearm. The severed limb fell to the ground, but the creature came forward without concern.

"What about you?" Selena yelled, as Arynn kicked the second undead creature away, and thrust her sword through the centre of the first's face. A palm behind the pommel through enough force into the strike to send the point crushing through bone and out the back of the skull.

"I'll catch up. Just, hold on," she called out, pulled her blade free, and already having to deal with the second again. A quick slash downwards bit into its thigh, and her feet carried her backwards as a third and fourth monster came at her. One with a dagger, the other a pitchfork clutched in both hands.

Khali let out a whinny. Whether the destrier had reacted on his own, or Selena had figured out how to give commands, Arynn could not see. She had brought her sword up before her, catching the thrust of the long makeshift weapon between two of its prongs. A sharp twist tore the pitchfork from the sluagh's one hand, which reached out for Arynn's throat.

A quick stomp snapped the weapon in half, and she turned fast, swinging her blade in a tight arc. The second monster's head fell from its shoulders as the sword cut its way through, the body collapsing to the ground. But another was already nearly upon her. Arynn rolled backwards, away from the reaching arms. As she came to her feet, she led with the point of her sword, driving it up under the chin of yet another sluagh. Chips of bone broke off on the crown of its head, and Arynn pulled her blade free swiftly.

Khali had broken a hole in the circle when he ran off into the woods, Selena on his back. Broken, trampled bodies lay in his wake, leaving a neat hole for the demon hunter's escape. More and more of the Sluagh was pouring out into the opening, and Khali's hole would not be open long. Arynn burst forward, legs carrying her into the woods.

Twisting her body and ducking low, she avoided the branches that reached out to snag at her. All around her, the silent dead marched towards her. Relentless, uncaring for the bodies left in the witch's front yard.

Boots snapping twigs underfoot, Arynn sprinted as fast as she could. When a sluagh stepped out from behind a tree and levelled a spear at her gut, the hunter twisted out of the way as best she could. The point snagged on a ring in her mail after slicing into the leather overtop. Her momentum tore the spear from the sluagh's hand, but she stumbled in a roll to the ground. The creature turned and came at her, not even going for its own weapon.

A swift kick to its knees had the creature falling, a second sharply delivered strike with her boot had it tumbling to the ground beside her. With her free hand grasping her axe, she pulled it from the loop it hung in, and twisted her body. The axe blade burried in the back of the sluagh with a dull thump. The snap of bone told the hunter she had gotten its spine.

Pulling the weapon free, dripping blood, she looked back from whence she came. The forest was full of the dead, stumbling towards her, wanting her life for their own. The hunter scrambled to her feet, kicking leaves and dirt up behind her. She swiftly slid her axe back into place, and left the paralyzed sluagh were it lay.

By the time she reached the packed dirt road, her lungs were burning, but she had managed to get some space between her and the horde that followed. Selena waited there, sitting on Khali's back, her eyes wide with fear, knuckles white around the reins she clutched. The destrier's hooves were covered in that thick brown blood and scraps of flesh. The horse just snorted as Arynn came forward.

"Good boy," Arynn said, patting Khali's neck affectionately as she sheathed her blade, before gesturing for Selena to release the reins and slide back in the saddle. Just as the witch moved, the hunter climbed up into the saddle.

Wrapping her arms around the hunter, Selena pressed herself tightly to the hunter, who glanced back into the woods. She could see the slow moving forms of the dead moving amongst the trees. Pressing in her heels, Arynn had Khali start off down the road in a hard gallop.


A few more hours on the road, stalked by the Sluagh all the while, and the trees finally gave way to rolling fields of grass that the country was so well known for. To the north were the mountains and beyond the highlands of Aenkleth. To the south was a broad river that glistened in the late afternoon sun. Staring at it a few moments, Arynn eventually realized it was the Lora River, that ran through Lairdon itself, and east to the Elesan Sea. Even now she could see the furled sails of a trading barge making its way west, and eventually south. Out from Aenkleth, and perhaps freedom from Aalzgoth's newest campaign.

The fact that what looked to be a military vessel of some sort was following behind the barge told Arynn that the rivers were not safe from the dark God's wrath. She did not want to know what he had surging beneath those waters.

Able to breathe easily, she slowed Khali down to a trot. Gradually, she became aware of the sensation of the witch pressed tightly against her back, though the hunter's own armour dispelled much of the sensation of Selena's soft form. If the situation were any different, Arynn would have allowed herself to enjoy the press of breasts to her shoulder blades, delicate yet callused hands wrapped around her stomach.

As it was, the near escape had the hunter on edge, and a smudge of smoke streaking the sky between her and Lairdon had her nerves alight. The two rode in silence along the road until they began skirting a fence that blocked off wide fields of burned crops. Smoke curled up from the ashes, a few poles that had once held scarecrows jutted up from the smouldering rows of what should have been the coming harvest.

"His legions have gotten even closer to the capital than I guessed," Selena said softly, but Arynn said nothing in reply. She knew what was to come, for it would be the second such scene she would bear witness to in as many days.

If the Sluagh and Druden were staging raids so close to Lairdon, she doubted that troops would be able to head west to the Convent of Saint Genevieve. As Khali's hooves carried her further along, she saw the edge of the village itself. Now she saw the bodies, at least the ones too far mutilated or burned to rise again. Left amongst the skeletal remains of homes that had collapsed upon themselves.

Slipping from Khali's back, Arynn slowly walked to the village's centre, glancing at each torn form of each villager, and their children. Blood stained the ground, soaked into packed earth and the rubble of homes. Severed limbs and heads were scattered amongst the bodies, strings of entrails making macabre lines along the ground.

"Oh no," Selena whispered as her eyes settled on the pike in the circle of the village's centre.

Impaled upon it was a woman's head. A strikingly beautiful woman in life, though a pair of horns curled from her forehead and over her hair. Her eyes and tongue had been torn out from her face, leaving crusted blood running over her cheeks and her chin. Arynn frowned at the sight.

"What was a succubus doing here?" she said, as Selena slipped from Khali's body. The destrier snorted, uncomfortable amongst these ruins.

The witch moved towards a large ruin, and found a body trapped beneath a heavy wooden beam. Covered entirely in black chainmail, except for her back, the dead woman lay at what had once been the entrance, a bloodied sword still in hand. The stump of her neck was ragged, and the leathery wings emerging from her back were tattered and broken.

"Fighting, and trying to protect these people," Selena said, getting Arynn's attention.

The hunter looked at the slain demon, and the bodies behind her. All children. Before her, dark druden blood was splashed all over. It appeared the hand maiden of Lyxa had fought off a good number of the beasts before succumbing. She had never imagined the day would come that she felt respect for a demon, but here it was.

Kneeling by the body, Selena carefully pried the sword from the fingers of the fallen succubus. She brought it over to Arynn, hilt resting on one palm, blade on the other. The hunter looked upon the sword, forged with the near black metal of Hell, with veins of earthen silver running through the blade. Runes she couldn't read were carved on either side of the fuller, running from the rain guard to the midpoint.

The cross guard itself had two prongs that curled like talons aimed towards the point, and supple leather was wrapped around the grip. The piece was capped in a raven's head pommel, with twin gems for eyes.

"Designed to kill the damned," Arynn said, looking once again at the succubus, and the bodies of those she had died defending.

Selena nodded slowly, and pulled the sword to herself, taking off her cloak to wrap up the weapon, hiding it from view. Arynn moved again to Khali, and took the horse's reins in hand. She started to walk through the village, keeping her eyes straight ahead. She had seen enough death in her life, that she didn't need more memories.

Following quietly behind, Selena hugged the blade of her Goddess, her cheeks glistening. She said not a word.

The demon hunter could only think of how monumental her task had grown.

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