The books never prepared me for this

The books never prepared me for this.

Master Karrna taught me that the start of each new age of the world was ushered in by an event so monumental that life would be radically changed forever. Somehow I thought that the first day of a new age would be celebrated but that was not to be the case.

The day was growing late. The last beams of daylight were finding their way through the narrow opening of the cave. Reaching out, the light focused on the palm of my hand. Dirt and something worse choked the lines and creases. I have never enjoyed the outdoors and would have normally been unable to rest without a thorough washing but the soothing warmth of the light made my eyes heavy. Slumping against the root covered wall I was careful to keep those last precious rays on me while finding a comfortable place to rest my head.

As the horror continued in the distance I drifted in and out of sleep, my mind conjuring images of Epiran Knights, clad in mail, bearing the regalia of their Orders, and riding in broad lines. Eyes wide and snorting their horses fought the control of their riders in the face of their savage foe. A seething mass of demons first advancing towards a far smaller company of devils shifted to face the oncoming wall. Deep howls and roars filled the air as they clamored to meet the Knights, cannibalizing the weaker among them who slowed the advance. Baatezu watched from a distance measuring, waiting for their time to strike. Spurring their warhorses forth the Epirans formed a wedge with Knight Captains at the tip. Thundering towards the demonic legion the Knights leveled their lances but just as they were about to deliver the blow all went still and silent, save the sound of rustling leaves.

Rubbing my neck I sat up, the light of the full moon casting a glow outside. Still drowsy, the crunch of leaves outside awoke my senses. As I crawled towards the narrow opening to the burrow, my heart pounded, each pulse of blood through my veins feeling like a hammer to my skull. I could see something draw near in the pale light. Gripping the soil tightly I put my head down hoping the noise would fade but it only came more rapidly. Looking out I could see the outline of a figure. They moved back and forth in front of me, gasping for breath and whimpering. Further off the guttural howl of beasts signaled the hunt. The weeping that began as soft and subdued turned uncontrollable. Pacing frantically, her foot became entangled in the vines that grew over the burrow and down the embankment. Falling forward, she came down hard against the ground her long wavy hair shrouding her face.

She lay there motionless, just inches from where I sat. Pulling her hair back she looked directly at me. The moon glistened off the tears that poured from her eyes. Straining to lift an arm she reached out towards me, her hand trembling violently. “Please, help me.” Her voice quivered. Lunging out, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her into the burrow. Her clothes stunk of death while blood, in a thick sheet, blanketed the front of her dress. Once inside, I concealed the mouth of the shelter using the vines that hung outside.

Slowly backing away from the opening numerous plodding footsteps trampled near. Just outside, a jumble of howls, shrieks, and growls were silenced by a harsh grunt. The pale streaks of moonlight casting through the vine wall suddenly blinked out as a hulking figure stepped in front of the burrow. The creature shifted back and forth, each footfall of the massive beast coming down with a heavy thud. Sniffing at the air the demon turned to face the burrow as the rabble began to murmur, grunt, and even giggle in unearthly tones.

My eyes turned to the girl. She was on her knees praying, clutching the charm of her necklace. Her dress hung off her like it was meant for someone much larger and was covered in the filth of one of the corpses that had rained upon Epirus. Leaning against the root wall I felt light headed and my stomach churned. They could smell her.

Soil began to trickle down around us as the demon, much too large for the opening, tore into the burrow. My eyes scanned for an exit but the only way out lay through the demons. Unable to contain their excitement the smaller demons howled and even clawed and snapped at each other while their master moved huge handfuls of earth from the side of the embankment.

Moving in front of the girl I began to breathe heavily, fighting back tears. “Listen to me; you have to give me your clothes.” She raised her head but stared blankly. Closer now I could see that she was wearing the robes of a priest. Aside from the stains, they were yellow and red, trimmed in silk, and had a number of suns embroidered around the collar. “They can smell you. Give me your clothes.” Slowly she pulled her robe over her head. Underneath, her garments were shredded and nothing remained below the waist. I pushed my satchel into her hands and pulled her stained robes over my head. “Once I get outside you have to be ready to move.” She continued to stare blankly. I grasped her shoulders and gently shook her. “Do you understand? If you stay here you will die!” Blinking several times she nodded and crawled with me towards the exit.

Taking several rapid deep breaths I planted my feet below me and prepared to leap from the den. Pushing forward the earth gave way causing me to slip and fall halfway outside. Towering above me was a reptilian tanar’ri, its massive jawline rimmed with dozens of small horns. Burning red eyes bulged as it caught sight of me. Placing a massive foot on my chest I struggled to breathe under the demons weight as it knelt down. A curved talon in the heel of its foot dug cruelly into my abdomen. Snorting and sniffing rapidly the creature’s mouth drew open revealing rows of crooked fangs that dripped foul mucus. The fumes spewing from its maw so caustic the stench burned my skin. “You are not the pretty thing we were looking for but I can smell her on you.” The demons voice was harsh, each word overly enunciated.

Directly above the demon a burst of flame caught my eye. The flame hovered for a moment then like a bolt from the heavens sailed rapidly towards the demon. Finding its mark the flame drove into the back of the beast’s neck and burst out the front. A wide blade covered in runes and wreathed in flame protruded from its throat. The demon clawed at the sword, wheezing and gurgling for air. A steel clad boot crushed the side of the demons head ripping the blade free nearly decapitating the beast. A slimy black filth erupted from the gaping wound as the lifeless body toppled over. Whirling around the flame brand hacked through the leg of a bloated demon sending him shrieking to the ground. The blade popped and sizzled as it seared the blood it had just drawn.

Now at my side the young girl tried to get me to my feet but pain in my abdomen was excruciating. The blade, still dancing, plunged into the ribs of another demon, hunched and twisted with deformity. Pulling free of its kill the blade stopped, the flame glowing brightly as the last of the demons fled, crying howls of terror, into the night. Three demons lay dead, their blood poisoning the soil in muddy pools. Standing over them was our savior, the fiery sword hanging at her side. Standing over six feet tall she was thin yet muscular, wielding her enormous sword one handed with ease. Massive feathered wings, black at the top tapering to reds and browns below, flexed slowly from her back. Tall pointed ears, angled slightly outward, protruded from her dark brown, unevenly cut hair. On her feet she wore greaves that rose above the knee while a fine blanket of chainmail protected her chest. From her belly to her thigh she wore nothing but countless scars of battle.

Walking between the bodies she plunged her blade into each to ensure that the job was finished. “Bee’org!” She was fuming, her teeth clenched and brow furrowed. “Bee’org, where are you?!” Stepping into the light was a baatezu, two massive horns curved back from its head, dozens, much smaller, joined in perfect symmetry. Its body was hunched but moved with ease under the weight of the ornamented steel plate it wore. A bed of sharpened spikes lay across the devil’s immense shoulders while its tail was armed with a single talon. Dangling from its face were fleshy tentacles that formed a macabre beard and in its clawed hand the devil held a saw toothed glaive.

Stretching her wings and giving one quick flap the sword maiden glared at the baatezu. “Late again, Bee’org…four escaped. Now they are scattered!” Her voice was strong, full of authority. Walking around her Bee’org’s slanted yellow eyes fixed upon me. “What a shame Sofiel but at least not a total loss.” The devil pulled an elongated blue crystal from a pouch. Looking closely I could make out anguished faces swirling at its core. Annoyed by his mocking tone Sofiel stepped in front of us. “Our commands were clear. Eliminate the threat and then harvest. At a minimum we still have four tanar’ri in our zone. Not a single soul until we have killed the tanar’ri.” Bee’org’s nostrils flared and lips quivered. “The boy is ripe! The girl is tainted but it would only take a moment to harvest the boy!” Faster than Bee’org could react Sofiel’s wings snapped her into the air spinning her around driving the heal of her greave into the stunned devil’s face. Falling in a heap, Bee’org coughed up a broken fang while bright red blood gushed from his mouth. Sofiel landed next to Bee’org, her blade burning furiously. Pressing the tip to his throat she spoke calmly. “Do not defy me. We have our orders.” With a flick of her wrist part of Bee’org’s fleshy beard was trimmed.

Bee’org pulled himself to his feet, his eyes darting between me and Sofiel. “This isn’t over Elysian whore!” Hefting his glaive, the devil stomped into the dark swatting at the undergrowth with frustrated grunts. Sofiel stood motionless for several minutes never turning to look at us. Still holding me the young girl smiled and took my hand. “My name is Ilsa.” Her voice was hoarse and faint. “Gaelin…” The pain was starting to subside enough that I was able to sit up with Ilsa’s help. Sofiel’s wings suddenly snapped out revealing a wingspan at least twice her height. With a single powerful stroke the dark angel was gone.

Leaning heavily on Ilsa I struggled to my feet. “We should go.” Walking in the dark we did our best to keep the glow of the inferno that was Epirus behind us. We walked for several hours tripping over stones and branches as we went. Stumbling forward Ilsa was breathing heavily and cringing with each step she took. Climbing between the exposed roots of a great tree Ilsa collapsed, hugged her knees tightly to her chest, and began to cry. Her feet were bare, blistered and bleeding. My heart sank as I realized that we had come all this way and Ilsa was still wearing nothing but a few ribbons of cloth that was once her shirt. I pulled the filth covered robes off but before I could give them to her she threw her arms around me and began to quietly sob. After a few moments her body relaxed as she drifted to sleep. Wrapping her in the robes I nestled us as far under the roots as I could manage without disturbing her.

Cradling Ilsa’s head I listened carefully for the approach of anything that might do us harm. In the distance, growls and roars still mixed with the ring of steel. Nearby, a cry, high pitched and desperate, suddenly cut off followed by an ominous chewing. I knew that evil lay all around us but somehow I felt that we would be safe, at least for now.

As the night wore on the forest grew silent save the trickle of a nearby stream. The thought of a fresh drink of water renewed my strength. Lifting Ilsa in my arms I walked towards the flow of water. Surprisingly, she was extremely light even though she was only slightly shorter than me, maybe five feet tall. The stream lay at the bottom of a steep gully. Looking downstream there was a portion of the wall of the gully overhanging the stream. Placing Ilsa down, I pulled a change of clothes and a brown woolen cloak from my satchel. Covering her with my cloak I soaked the priest’s robes in the water hoping to at least remove the stench.

Finally, I knelt down and plunged my head into the slow moving stream. The water was frigid but exhilarating. Still underwater I vigorously scrubbed my hands and face and continued to long after they were clean. Unable to hold my breath any longer I lurched up and gasped. “I was wondering if you were trying to drown yourself.” Ilsa was awake, wrapped in the woolen cloak. “Are these for me?” She held up my spare trousers and shirt. “Yes, I think they will fit better than that dirty robe.”

Pulling the robe from the water it still smelled like a rotting corpse. “Maybe we should just leave it here.” Ilsa stood still clutching the cloak tightly around her. “No!” Taking a few weak steps towards me she stared pitifully at the garment. “It was my mothers. She was wearing it when…” As her voice trailed off Ilsa grabbed her abdomen and grimaced. Looking down at my hands I searched for the right words but said nothing. Carefully laying the robes on a bed of stones I pulled my rag from my pocket. “We should get you cleaned up.”

Through the boughs of the trees beams of daylight signaled the dawn. After soaking the cloth and wringing it out several times, I helped Ilsa to the water’s edge. Her face and hair were caked in a sticky muck. Laying down in the shallow water I gently washed her face while the flow of the stream broke loose filth from her hair. As the muck melted from her hair and face I realized that Ilsa was older than her small frame suggested, probably seventeen or eighteen. Her wavy hair, now free of dirt, was dark red and hung well past her shoulders. As the cloth passed over her face it revealed soft white skin, without so much as a line or wrinkle but covered in freckles. Even at rest her full lips naturally curved creating a slightly mischievous smile while a small point at the top of her ears hinted at an elvish ancestor. Around her neck was a fine golden chain from which a charm, the holy symbol of the temple of light, hung.

Ilsa, water flowing around her body, opened her eyes. They were bright green and gleamed in the morning light. “Thank you Gaelin.” I smiled and avoided making eye contact. I knew her words had deeper meaning but I have never been comfortable with praise. “We couldn’t have you running around covered in that filth.” I did my best to act naïve hoping she would feel enough had been said. Ilsa placed her hand on my leg. “Thank you Gaelin, for what you did…last night.” She was gripping my leg tightly tears welling in her eyes. I have always had a knack for choosing the most inappropriate words in the most serious of situations. This time was no different. “I guess I just wasn’t thinking.”

Leaning back I closed my eyes realizing how stupid I must have sounded. Ilsa sat up, my cloak, soaking wet, still pulled tightly around her. Struggling to her feet she pushed me away refusing any help. Ilsa hobbled under the overhang and turned to face me. “So this was all a mistake?! You heard that devil! I’m tainted!” Looking around I began to worry that something unfriendly might hear. “Please, that’s not what I meant. We have to be quiet.” Dropping the cloak free Ilsa stood naked. Her body was clean but covered in countless cuts, claw marks, and bites. Blood slowly ran in streaks down the inside of her legs. “They cut my mother’s eyelids from her face and forced her to watch. I pretended to be dead but they all wanted a turn.” Stumbling towards me Ilsa’s face twisted and she gritted her teeth. “When they turned on my mother the demons ate her face while they raped her.”

Desperate for this to end I snapped back. “Stop! Just stop! No one asked for any of this to happen!” Ilsa, her face covered in anguish, began to sob as she bent over holding her stomach. I wrapped the cloak around her again and helped her under our shelter. There we sat, Ilsa’s head resting in my lap, for hours.

Pulling my satchel next to me I threw it open and dumped out its contents. Inside was a small amount of bread and cheese, a flask of wine that I had snuck from the cellars, an apple, and a dagger my father had given me. Also inside was my spell book that I used as my journal and my journal where I kept notes on a few handy spells. Carefully placing our supplies back I held the dagger and thought of my father. He was a member of the Highborn Order and in his youth had served in the palace guard. My brother, Oren, who was ten years old by the time I was born, was naturally gifted with both people and combat so it was only natural that he would follow my father into the Highborn. I, on the other hand, was clumsy with a sword and even worse with people. I found it easier to either blindly go along with what others wanted or avoid people altogether. So as a child when my father asked if I would like to train for the Highborn I, wanting to please him, said yes. He spent a fortune and much of my youth sending me to study combat under several master swordsmen but when it became time to declare an Order even my father had to admit that I would not follow in his or my brother’s footsteps.

The happiest day of my life came when, at the age of thirteen, I joined the Magus Order and was sent to study under Master Karrna. I had spent nearly all of my teenage years cloistered away from people with my nose in a book. The books told me everything I needed to know. I even studied baatezu and tanar’ri, the proper names for devils and demons, and their homes on the outer planes. However, I had no idea how to care for or, least of all, what to say to comfort someone like Ilsa. We sat quietly for another thirty minutes when I decided I would try to say something. Wanting to avoid another scene I felt that I should keep it simple. “I’m sorry Ilsa.” Waiting for a response, I cringed as she sat up. Leaning over she kissed my cheek, her lips were cold. I took a deep breath and exhaled nervously. Handing her my spare clothes I stood up. “You should get dressed.”

As Ilsa dressed I returned to the river and continued to scrub the vestment against the cobblestones in the river. The crystal clear water turned red as the blood began to come free of the robes. Her mother had worn them. Her mother had died in them. Nothing I had seen could compare to what Ilsa had endured.

Ilsa was still too weak to move so we spent the night under the overhang. Neither of us talked preferring to simply lie together. The night air was chilled but the extreme silence made resting easier after a day and a half of chaos. By morning Ilsa felt strong enough to move again. Both of us were extremely sore and Ilsa’s wounds were still bleeding slightly but we couldn’t afford to linger any longer. There was no way that Ilsa’s blistered feet could carry her far without protection so I cut strips of wool from the bottom of my cloak and wrapped her feet. Taking a few steps she nodded with approval and we set out south again.

The books never prepared me for this

Adoraith: Echoes of Epirus Adoraith