Your humble servant seeks your blessing

Your humble servant seeks your blessing

The humid morning air was warm and the wind that had brought us so much relief the day before had grown still. Without the strong gusts, the rash of insect bites covering my body were becoming inflamed by the heat of the day. Slowly climbing out of the rocks, I shielded my eyes from the sun as I stretched. My body felt as though it had been trampled by horses and I smelled as if the animals had added insult to injury.

Atop a boulder above me kneeled Ilsa. She was wearing her mother’s robes, cinched at the waist with a cord, and performing her rituals of prayer. The morning sun climbed out of the east wreathing Ilsa in a shimmering radiance. Her red hair was tied back exposing her fair skin which seemed to glow softly in the light. From around her neck she pulled her golden charm, a symbol of her faith. Moving rhythmically Ilsa held the charm aloft in reverence to her Lord.

Quietly I retrieved my pack and removed the journal that held my spell notes. My eyes returned to Ilsa several times before I could focus on my own preparations. Scanning my notes, I could feel my heart pound vigorously and stomach sink. During my years with the Magus I had spent far more time studying history, alchemy, and the outer planes than I did the arcane. My notebook contained very few spells with which to defend myself and none that would stop a demon.

Preparing what I could my concentration was finally broken when Ilsa’s shadow cast over me. Looking up, I was struck by the perfect contours of her face. The cuts and abrasions had vanished revealing a natural beauty. Lost in the moment, I caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were dazzling in the morning sun but full of purpose. “You promised to pray with me this morning.” Glancing down, her hand was resting on the pommel of my dagger which was held by the cord around her waist. My eyes began to dance between the dagger and the small cut I had given her the day before. Sitting up straight, I tried to hide my aggravation with the idea of joining her in prayer. “What do I have to do?”

Ilsa climbed back on top of the boulder and motioned for me to follow. Pulling myself next to her, she stood one hand still on the dagger. “Gaelin, close your eyes.” Apprehensively, I did as she said. Strangely, I found myself feeling slightly woozy and I grabbed Ilsa’s hand to stop from falling. Laughing softly, she held me steady and began to speak. “Merciful creator, your humble servant seeks your blessing. Your followers have suffered but our faith remains stronger than the foundation of the heavens. Now we ask that your divine light bathe our lands in your grace. Guide your servants so that we may bring a righteous reckoning and avenge those we have lost. With your countenance we will burn clean those who have murdered and defiled your faithful as well as anyone who impedes your justice!”

Grabbing my jacket, Ilsa slammed me against the stone wall. Opening my eyes, Ilsa had the look of a wild animal. Her teeth clenched and eyes piercing, she breathed heavily as if she were going to explode. I could feel the edge of the dagger cut into my throat just enough to draw blood. “Ilsa, what are you doing?” She leaned in close and I could feel her heart thump rapidly against my chest. “I could have killed him. Why did you stop me from killing Falk!” Her voice was dangerously loud and she was still glaring as though I had wronged her. Feeling my body tense I lurched forward and shoved her down. “I didn’t stop you from killing Falk! I stopped you from getting us killed!”

Before I could say another word, the horrendous roar of a demon erupted nearby. Horrified, I backed away, my eyes locked on Ilsa as I slid down the rock. She didn’t follow, her gaze scanning the horizon while she gripped the blade tightly. Reaching out, I begged her to get down. “Come! Out of sight!” Refusing my hand, Ilsa returned the dagger to her waist and jumped between the boulders.

My thoughts became jumbled as I was trapped between Ilsa’s madness and the demon that stalked nearby. I had trouble catching my breath and my head began to pound in painful rapid succession. Ilsa stared at me seemingly unphased by the threat that lurked around us. Soon, another loud grunt followed by shouts and a hideous roar rang out. Peaking out over the stones, I kept my voice subdued. “Ilsa, we need to get out of here.” Towards the west two massive demons, hunched, covered in ruddy scales below and thick lumpy plates above had pinned another, roughly humanoid figure to the ground. Their long muscular arms driving both claw and fist into the wailing creature while bright red blood sprayed in thick sheets with each blow.

Suddenly, swooping in from the sky at an incredible speed flew a dark feathered winged creature wielding a broad fiery blade. Flying just above the ground the creature streaked past the first demon cleaving its right leg off just below the knee. Letting out a raspy shriek the tanar’ri toppled over clutching its stump while a thick black muck oozed from the wound. Soaring back into the air with the fires of her sword trailing behind, I could see that it was the dark angel Sofiel.

Snatching the severed leg of his companion, the other demon held it at the ready as Sofiel hovered above. The beast’s attention fixed squarely on Sofiel, it didn’t notice the half dozen Baatezu sneaking in from behind. My knees wobbled slightly when I saw Bee’org among them, his beard still bloodied from Sofiel’s warning. With him were 5 other devils, three squat, their bodies covered in dozens of barbs, wielding serrated swords and two hulking, their heads crowned with enormous horns, wearing steel plate and carrying wide bladed spears.

Hooking the demon by the ankle with his glaive, Bee’org brought the hulking creature crashing to the ground. Seeing the opening the other Baatezu moved in delivering repeated blows. Continuing their assault long after the creature stopped struggling, the massive figure was left unrecognizable, its corrupted blood pouring from dozens of wounds.

Forgetting the demon crippled by Sofiel, a smaller Baatezu, its rigid spines flexing with each breath, stumbled backwards over the still writhing creature. Enraged, the tanar’ri snapped at the barbed devil with its fanged frog-like maw delivering a bite to the back of its skull. One of the massive horned brutes moved to intervene but Bee’org, amused by his comrade’s folly, blocked the devil’s advance with his glaive. Flailing desperately, the grappled Baatezu let out high pitched squeal before a loud crunch silenced the noise. Blood and brains splattered across the ground as the devil’s quivering corpse was tossed aside.

Flopping to its back the demon began laughing uncontrollably as blood and bone fragments spurted from its gullet. Bee’org pointed and chuckled as the felled devil’s body seized with spasms causing the creature to bite its own tongue off. Landing with a loud thud, Sofiel drove her sword into the gaping maw of the one legged demon pinning its head to the ground. While it twisted and writhed, choking on its own blood, Sofiel, extending her wings, fumed at Bee’org. “You blithering fool! We lost two soldiers because of you! Arriving late cost us our tracker and then you allowed the demon to take another!” With one clean stroke Sofiel ripped her blade free of the demon and brought her sword down again decapitating the creature.

Bee’org, holding his ground, snorted and spit, “Come now Sofiel, two fewer shares of loot to pay as far as me and the boys are concerned. Besides, what are we doing still hunting tanar’ri when so many mortals are ripe?” Sofiel, cocking her head, snapped a leg back and booted the decapitated head of the demon at Bee’org hitting him in the chest leaving a black smear. “Mortals? What mortals? You pathetic fool, the tanar’ri sacked the village ahead last night! If we don’t deal with the demons there will be nothing left to harvest! Sofiel turned towards the other Baatezu and motioned to the corpses of their comrades. “Hunt or be hunted.” Looking back at Bee’org, Sofiel pointed the tip of her blade at him glared. Bee’org grinned, revealing a gaping hole where one of his prominent fangs had been. “You owe me whore! Whether it’s a mortal who pays or you I won’t be cheated!” Unmoved, Sofiel smiled back, “Watch yourself low spawn before I finish trimming your beard.” Bee’org gnashed his teeth and grunted as Sofiel turned back to the others. “We head southeast, now move!”

Slumping down behind the boulder I felt ill and fought back the urge to vomit. My headache had grown worse and I was having trouble focusing. I could feel Ilsa crawl over next me as I tried to speak. “She said the demons reached Stohl last night.” Ilsa pushed my satchel into my arms and tugged at me to stand. “We’re only a couple of hours from Stohl. Let’s go.” My body remained limp as Ilsa tried to pull me up. Suddenly, I felt a hard kick to the side of my leg. “Get up damn you! There might be people still alive. We can’t do this alone!” Ilsa was right, we needed help. Pulling myself up, Ilsa and I peeked out and saw that the Baatezu had moved on.

Climbing down the face of the hill we entered an expanse of forest known as the Runewood. The forest stretched several hundred miles south and east through the hills and following the Dragontear and Wrathrun Rivers. Stohl lay on the southern banks of the Dragontear where the river forked meeting the Wrathrun. While a relatively small village, Stohl was the mustering point for the High Lord’s southern armies and where my brother, Oren, was stationed.

Moving south, Sofiel’s words kept playing in my head. If Stohl had been destroyed where would we turn? In our previous meeting Sofiel had protected us from the Bee’org. Maybe she had lied to her soldiers to protect the people. Maybe Stohl was safe and we would find sanctuary there. Hanging on to these fleeting hopes allowed us to move quickly and ignore the protests of our empty bellies. However, as the sun passed overhead it was plain to see that hope had failed us. Plumes of smoke rose in the direction of Stohl signaling the truth of Sofiel’s words.

Staying off the main road, Ilsa and I cut through the wild using the pillars of smoke to keep our bearings. As we grew near to Stohl the dense wood began to give way but ash and smoke hung thick in the air obscuring what lay ahead. The fumes, stinking of brimstone, tightly gripped my lungs but I refused to cough fearing something unfriendly would hear. Fires still smoldered all around as nothing was spared the ravages of the inferno. Charred trees, like blackened arrow shafts piercing the earth, stood in contrast to the white soot that covered the ground and swirled with the wind. Moving cautiously the stark landscape soon became dotted with burned corpses.

Twisted, charred, and some dismembered, fallen soldiers lay scattered across the field. Demons, untouched by fire, lay slain in equal numbers as a testament to Epiran bravery. Ahead, through the haze, a larger mass took shape. Creeping forward, I couldn’t help but smile at the site of a long mound of tanar’ri piled along a stone wall on the edge of Stohl. The demons had met a strong defense at the wall and paid a heavy toll to enter the city. The ground here was carpeted with arrows while long spears and lances, in the dozens, protruded from the mound.

Beyond the wall some buildings still burned vigorously. Towards the city center wagons were overturned creating another line but in places looked as though they had been blasted apart. Like notes arranged on a sheet of music the dead sang the tale of battle. While the infantry fell back from the stone wall Epiran Knights formed and charged the oncoming horde. By sword, lance, and hoof, demons lay slain in dense piles. Sadly, this was not a battle where the Knights would find triumph. Huge cloven footprints, large enough to buckle the cobblestone streets, pushed the cavalry back. Each step from the beast seared the ground deforming the stone beneath. The stench of burnt flesh was strongest here. The intense heat had sundered blades and cooked Knights in their armor. Horses and riders, lying mangled and mutilated, were no match for what had come.

Fire, fed by gusts of wind, crackled and snapped as Ilsa moved from body to body searching for signs of life. Ilsa worked quickly and showed no fear or apprehension at the carnage that lay around us. Beyond the line of wagons Ilsa paused and waved me over. “He is alive.” Leaning against a horse whose belly had been spilled into the street was a Knight. Several puncture wounds dotted his breastplate and the left side of his body was burned and blackened exposing teeth and bone. Half a dozen demons, much larger and more grotesque than those at the stone wall, were felled by sword wounds and strewn around the Knight. Collapsed at the feet of the Knight was a six legged beast, much larger than a warhorse and covered in rough chitinous plates, its long bony tail armed with a venomous talon. Lodged in the vermin’s abdomen was a sword, buried up to the hilt.

Keeping her voice restrained Ilsa began to recite a healing prayer. As she passed her hands over the wounds a warm glow embraced the Knight closing the wounds but not restoring the flesh. As the prayer ended, Ilsa’s patient began to stir. The left side of his body remained gruesome. The flesh covering his eye, ear, and cheek had been seared to the bone leaving nothing but a skeletal visage. His right arm was lost, reduced to ash, at the shoulder.

Weakly, the Knight’s eye, blinking several times slowly, began to open. Raising his right arm he caressed Ilsa’s face with the back of his hand. Ilsa took his hand to her chest and held it tightly. “You need to rest.” Her words were soft and full of warmth. The Knight grimaced, his body tense, as he struggled to speak. “You should have saved your prayers. Its venom will take me soon.” My eyes glanced back to the demon at his feet.

Ilsa shushed him and began to hum as though she were comforting a new born. After a moment his body relaxed again as the pain subsided. “Captain Marram, he led the villagers away…along the Dragontear. My men and I held the scum here until…” The Knight paused, though not from the pain of his wounds. All at once, terror and rage gripped him as he named the calamity that had razed Stohl. “Balor!” Ilsa glanced back at me knowing all too well the meaning of that word. Aside from the demon lords themselves, no evil of the outer planes inspired more fear than a Balor.

Reaching for a chain around his neck the Knight pulled a large golden holy symbol. The symbol was identical to Ilsa’s except intricately designed and much larger. “What are your names?” Ilsa, fighting back a tear, cleared her throat. “Ilsa Sommer.” I paused, realizing that this was the first time I had heard Ilsa’s last name. “I am Gaelin…Gaelin Marram.” The Knight smiled, “Oren’s brother? He will want to know that you are alive.” Pulling the golden symbol from around his neck, he placed it in Ilsa’s hand. “Blessings be upon you priestess.” Clutching the emblem tightly Ilsa kissed his forehead. “Tell me your name so that I may keep you in my prayers.”

“I am Captain Hugo Baum.” Hugo’s tone was proud but weakened by the venom. “Please, my sword…” Hugo pointed to the hilt sticking from the belly of the insect-like demon. Walking over, I questioned whether I had the strength to pull free a blade so deeply lodged. Before grabbing the weapon I couldn’t help but admire the artistry of the hilt. Crafted of gold and silver, the quillions took the shape of angel’s wings, the grip, wrapped in fine white leather bore no stain or blemish, and the pommel, a blazing golden sun.

Wrapping my hand around the hilt, the weapon was warm, almost soothing, to the touch. Giving a slight tug I was surprised to feel the blade easily begin to pull free of the corrupted creature. Like a newly forged piece of steel plunging into cold water, the sword popped and sizzled as it slid out. Disgusting green ooze foamed and squirted from the wound but the blade emerged pristine, like brightly polished silver.

Kneeling next to Hugo, I placed the sword in his hand. Hugo raised the pommel to his lips and kissed the golden sun. His hand shaking Hugo returned the sword to me. “This is Hartraud. He has been my companion through many battles and has never failed me. Now, may he protect you.” Reaching down, Hugo unbuckled the belt that held Hartraud’s sheath and handed it to me. “Find Oren…tell him that my men fought bravely.” Grabbing his hand I couldn’t contain myself and began to weep. Ilsa leaned in and wrapped her arms around me but remained strong. Hugo faded, dying with dignity and honor.

I found a banner bearing the Highborn crest and draped it over Hugo while Ilsa searched for further signs of life. The demons were thorough, leaving none alive. Night was beginning to fall by the time we finished searching the village. Fortunately, ample supplies were left in the ruins to provide us with packs, clothing, food, and a proper pair of shoes for Ilsa. I even managed to find two bottles of tawny port. One I used to refill my flask while the other I secured safely in my satchel.

We have to follow the Dragontear River to catch Oren but he had a nearly two day head start and we were exhausted. Fearing that the still smoldering fires may attract unwelcome attention overnight Ilsa and I decided to follow the river for at least an hour before resting. We hadn’t said much to one another since Hugo’s passing but, before leaving Stohl, Ilsa said one last prayer over the Knight. Fearing that Ilsa may ask me to take part in the eulogy I watched from a distance and bowed my head in respect as she spoke. Strangely, I wanted to speak. I wanted to honor this man who gave his life so that my brother could escape. I pressed my brain for the right words but was overcome with an avalanche of memories of my father and brother. Ilsa’s words faded as I began to shake, fearing that the demonic horde would overtake Oren’s caravan. My head began to spin as before and I could feel myself losing my footing but Ilsa was there to catch me. Her arms tightly around me, Ilsa spoke softly, “Come Gaelin, we have to find your brother.”

Your humble servant seeks your blessing

Adoraith: Echoes of Epirus Adoraith