———— Chapter 1 ————
The vast forest lay unmoving in the sun-baked daylight. The chirps of the wisp blights, previously filling the now quiet air, had since fluttered away like the embers of their wings. The wind, typically a sweet smelling swirl of flowers and nectar, now unmoving and calm through the towering trees. Though, the winds would begin once more, the sweetness would surely be replaced by something… foul. A blend of anguish, hatred and fear. An anxious and putrid odor only the hunter could observe. And enjoy profusely.
“S-s-somebody… help me, save me, please!”
From within the dense sheltered thicket, a young woman stumbled panickedly over a gnarled root, grabbing at her like the unseen claws of her pursuer. As she tripped and fell toward the forest floor, her Vixish ears caught the sound that filled her mind with dread; a calm, calculated crunch of the fallen branches and leaves behind her. Her one tail, violet in color and frayed with loose leaves and branches, scrambled to help her up, as the hunter came into her sight. The soft growl she heard seemed to mock her, as if the beast knew she could not escape, but did not wish the hunt would end so soon.
The woman, now on her feet and looking wildly about her, yelled out once more. “Please! Somebody! Anybody!” Her voice, once known in her village to help newborns drift to sleep, now scratched hoarsely into the still air. The beast had been hunting her for hours now, and she could hardly stand against a tree, let alone continue the flight. The hunter, a ferocious beast on all fours, knew this too, but decided to let his meal marinate in its fear. Alas, the game seemed to be done. And so came the end, for both hunter and hunted.
As the beast, a demon by all rights and descriptions, approached his helpless meal, a light breeze passed over his matted fur. The smell that followed, at first, pleased the beast; that familiar mix of the meal’s fear and panic, acting as a trail to follow if he ever lost his prey. But the smell seemed to shift on the breeze, as if adding another flavor to the aroma. The beast, continuing forward, contemplated this new odor. Stress? No… determination? Not possible. Definitely less delicious than panic… but… male? Surely no other males in his territory for miles. But then… what?
As the beast, now within arms length of the feeble, shaking meal, began to process the new scent, a form crashed heavily down onto the beast's back. As the beast flinched and buckled in surprise, the form, cloaked by the shadow of the canopy, rebounded off of the hunter and landed behind the creature. Impossible… what just…. where? The beast, recovering from the sudden assault, looked about in confusion. Behind it, only the trees loomed overhead. No… what did that? Where is it? As the demon turned about, a voice seemed to echo from around him.
“You, foul demon. Karma shall smite you for you!” The voice, strong and male, boomed from the trees, almost in all directions. “You call yourself a hunter of these parts, yet you could not see it was you being hunted!”
Continuing to search for this new prey, a new feeling started to creep into the beast's mind. Was this fear? The beast stepped back, and crunched a thick branch right behind him. A branch… yes… that is what hit him. Surely this was an illusion… his prey must be more clever than he assumed. The beast shook his head and growled. No matter. Better eat now, before she could trick him further…
As the demon returned its gaze to the woman, a wild grin slowly forming on its mouth, the world seemed to begin to blur. What… is…. the hunter could hardly think straight, as the woman, the forest, the world, all things slowly seemed to shimmer and fade. As a final thought dawned on the beast, it ended with a wet splat, as the form of the creature slowly, but precisely, split evenly onto the forest floor.
A figure stepped forward from behind a tree, standing before the woman, the corpse of the beast. The same figure, a man with hair as black as the canopy’s shadows, who surprised the beast, looked down at the now unmoving body. “They never learn. I pity our paths crossed, as only one of us was fated to walk away.”
The woman, still in shock and mind buzzing with panic and stress, watched the man bend down and press two fingers onto each half of the monster. As he rose, he extended his arm to stroke the blade, as if to clean its fuller with the blood of the beast. The blade, shimmering silver and black in the natural spotlight above, seemed to hum from this action, in what could be described as appreciation for the act. After a moment, the man flicked his sword in the air, causing the blood, as black and wicked as night, to disperse into the air, falling back to the ground like its previous owner.
The man turned and bowed to the woman, whom he nearly forgot was an audience to his hunt. As she stared in disbelief, he pointed to the north. “Our encampment is only a few miles from here”, said the man, looking back at the woman to make sure she understood. “When you are able, you are more than welcome to take refuge with me and my friends.” As he said this, a light smile traced his strong face.
The woman, head still spinning, took a moment to process this information. As she collected herself, the woman let out a simple “Thank you”. When she did not hear her savior respond, she looked up. The man, the hunter who saved her from her pursuer, and the body of the felled demon, were both gone. Above, the hole in the canopy let light pierce down into the clearing she now stood in, alone.
———— Chapter 2 ————
Miles away, several hours into that day, the setting star above shone down on the clearing. The breeze, nonexistent hours ago, shifted the leaves busily through the air, mixing fluidly with the bustle of voices. From the clearing, light smoke from fires drifted into the marooning sky. The rusting of the leaves and various conversations across the encampment would make it impossible for anyone to hear the approach of a trained warrior. Impossible, unless one was attuned to the magic of the wind, and connected to the returning resident of the camp.
As the man, blade sheathed and black hair shining dully in the setting light, entered the clearing, a cheerful voice seemed to trump all ambient noise around him
“Jayce!” The voice, feminine and as light as the air itself, grew louder as its owner rushed toward the man. The man, Jayce, turning to see the speaker, acknowledged her approach with the shift of his stance. Before him stood a woman, brown hair shimmering a light orange in the light, contrasting her sharp emerald eyes. Her face, glowing with a smile, appeared radiant in the evening. As she got closer, her smile dropped as her eyes grew large with concern. “Your hair has leaves in it! And that mud on your boots… are you okay?” The woman, now directly in front of Jayce, stood at least a foot below his eye line, looking up at him with a mix of concern and excitement.
“How does someone as precise as you get your clothes this dirty?” Sophia interrupted, reaching out and brushing dust from Jayce’s cloak. As she gripped the blue and black cloth, she playfully lifted it above her head, as if looking for something hidden beneath. “What happened? Where is the creature?”
Jayce looked down at Sophia, meeting her wide eyes with a gentle smile. Sighing deeply, he raised his arm and set his palm on her shoulder. Letting out a chuckle, he collected his thoughts.
“Sophia, I am fine.” He took a step back toward the center of the encampment, planning to walk and talk toward the nearest fire. Sophia, taking the hint, followed beside, the breeze seeming to flow about the two toward their next destination.
“And the demon?” Sophia looked up at Jayce, eyes burning green with anticipation.
Jayce looked down at the girl, seriousness shadowing his previous smile. “That creature, demon or not, has been dealt with.” At this, Jayce turned away from Sophia and looked blanking in front of him. “Sadly,” he continued, “a life was taken, but in return another was spared.” At this, the duo passed the first tents of the encampment, voices whispering out of their interiors as they passed. From the corner of his eye, Jayce noted a shadow flicker from his right.
“Yet again balance holds strong in these parts. Still, if I only…” Before he could finish his thought, a ray from the setting star seemed to distract Jayce. Though this was merely to humor the perpetrator. Glancing up, Jayce traced the expected direction of the incoming guest. Though this trick would have caught many trained warriors off guard, his companion would need to do much better to catch him by surprise.
Sure enough, a moment later a hand, smaller, yet somehow stronger than Jayce’s own, patted the man on the shoulder. Still walking, Jayce looked down and saw the hand’s owner; a short male, short black hair shining in the light more brightly than his own. The goggles on his forehead, hiding the border of hair and skin save for several caught strands of hair, glinted gold. Though clearly not caught off guard, Jayce couldn’t help but give the seemingly young assailant an approving smirk.
The man, whose appearance could be easily mistaken for a boy, saw this as an affirmation of his successful attack and beamed up at Jayce. “Jayce, you need to lighten up!” As they walked, the man continued. “The way I see it, we’re doing some real good out here in a land filled with these ugly, stinky, dumb demons!” Reaching behind his back, the man pulled a blade, no longer than Jayce’s arm, and skillfully spun it around him. The breeze that followed the trio picked up the swishing of the weapon, as if to add its metallic swing to the background of their conversation. “Ha! Got what they deserved I’d say! Picking on what little is left of the people ‘round here!”
Jayce’s eyes glanced around as the shorter man smiled and yelled out, drawing curious eyes toward the group as they continued forward. Their faces seemed to light up at the outburst, though only for a moment. Jayce knew their spirits were wavering, facing such attacks and strikes on a daily basis. Little victories were rare these days, with wounds outnumbering them greatly.
Still, Jayce couldn’t help but feel the infectious mirth emanating from his companion. Smiling, he looked over his shoulder at the man. “Runthimus, no matter what they are or what horrid crimes they commit, all life deserves recognition.” Flashes of the recent missions echoed in Jayce’s mind, as if arguing with his statement by presenting him evidence to the contrary. Still though… whether innocent or not, the bodies Jayce had seen were once alive, once part of the balance of life, no? Jayce pondered this to himself, before adding, “we should just be thankful for the work we do, and for the comrades still by our sides.”
The man, Runthimus, looked at Jayce, eyes flashing with anger. Jayce, hardly noticing as he continued pondering his thoughts, turned toward Sophia. “The southern path seemed to have been attacked by a demon though. I managed to find a survivor and directed her to…”
Jayce heard the word mid-sentence come from his side. Turning to look, he saw Runthimus, face slowly turning a crimson hue, squinted up at him, blade still drawn from his outburst from before.
“What was that, Runthi…”
“It’s RUNTY!” Runthimus stopped and stomped once into the forest floor. As Jayce watched, a light flicker of Runthimus’ outline caught his eye, as if the man’s shadow was wavering with his annoyance. “How many times must I tell you this! Here, say it with me; RUH. UN. TAY! It’s really not that hard!”
Jayce reached out and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. With that action, the flickering ceased, leaving the red faced Runty to stare up at Jayce with that same twisted face of annoyance. Looking at it, Jayce couldn’t help but let out a chuckle.
“What!” Runty turned a brighter shade, embarrassed by the reaction. “Did these demons hit your head or something? Sheesh…”
Jayce looked at his friend, and couldn’t help but smile. After a moment, Runty smiled back. With a laugh, Runty ran off ahead of the group, continuing his proclamation against all things “Vile, cruel, and quite frankly ugly”. Jayce, as he watched Runty run ahead, resumed his walk toward the center of the camp. Sophia, sensing Jayce’s calmed, yet thinking, mood, just walked alongside him in silence, listening to the gentle breeze as it drifted through the camp.
Eventually, the duo reached their fearless third member, as he regaled a group of children of Jayce’s heroic deeds from the day. A tale he managed to get a single sentence out about, thought Jayce, as he watched Runty jump around a bonfire, imitating a demon being slain by Jayce. Sophia joined in the children’s laughter, and used her skills to excite the flames at just the right moments.
Jayce tried to watch, but his mind continued on his words to Runty. We should be thankful… surely this is true. But what if the children here; refugees to barbaric beasts, losing everything they once had... to be left with what? A fleeting hope and dependence on a few equally devastated warriors? Had he not lost so much from the demons… yet now he was thankful? As Jayce thought, his eyes drifted from Runty, hands raised to imitate the “many horrible spines of the three headed serpent demon”, and toward the flickering flames. As he stared, his mind drifted as well, remembering his own past, and the pasts of his comrades.
———— Chapter 3 ————
The smoke of the bonfire swirled gracefully into the air, as Jayce’s eyes almost glazed over. Deep in his thoughts, he sat, pondering if this life was his fate, their fates. The continuous battle. The constant fight, day in and day out, to purge the land of demons and monsters. Monsters… truly a vague term, Jayce mused. Men can be monsters. And in this land, it was hard to tell the difference.
Jayce, along with Runthimus and Sophia, were natives of this chaotic land. A land known to travelers and cartographers as Visolensia. To its residents, it was nameless, for invoking its name was said to be a curse of misfortune. The land, a continent of immense size and expanses, was covered with untamed wildernesses, desolate terrains, and natural structures that seemed to crave for suffering and woe. In the beginning, many lifetimes ago, mankind sought a land for great fortunes and the promise of paradise. True, the continent of Visolensia offered these, yet a deeper magic lurked beneath the soil. Despite the numerous aerial reports, using observational magic, showing the land of verdant green, flowing streams, and numerous herds of beasts, the land changed as soon as man arrived and set foot into its soil. Almost as if being tainted by man’s inherent greed and wickedness, the land grew wild and harsh, and difficult to settle in.
It was months into this occupation that the demon assaults began. The plentiful hoards of beasts, once peaceful from distant observation, seemed to transform into fierce monsters from beyond this world. Creatures of warped dimensions and design, as if taken from the nightmares of children and adults alike. Foul beings that seemed to see mankind’s arrival as a threat, a virus for the body to eradicate before it killed the host. Yet, while there is good in man, none such exists in the hearts of the demons. Many who survived originally believed it was not their arrival which sparked this change, but instead the lands of Visolensia are but a gateway to a much crueler, haunting place, where these nightmarish creatures originate. And potentially greater threats.
It was the first attacks that took the most from the original settlers. After the survivors realized the curse set upon them, they banded together with each other, and any new settlers foolish enough to venture to these shores. The foolish attempted to establish towns and villages, groups of thirty or more. These were targeted soon after by the demons. Jayce was born into one of these larger groups. His parents helped establish a small village, off an outcrop of jagged obsidian along the eastern shores. Yet after the flames of war engulfed the group, only the glassy black stone remained of the settlement. That, and Jayce alone.
No, to ensure survival under such circumstances, people have banded together into close groups, no greater than five. These vagabond groups became a family to their members, with the purpose of surviving the continued attacks, and aiding other groups should their paths ever cross. Jayce and his friends had indeed become such a vagabond group, a family founded from war and death.
It was Runty who found Jayce after the waves of darkness struck his coastal village and wiped out his family and friends. From there, the two vowed to train, to make good use of their inherent skills to continue. To not only survive, but protect others. True, alone they could only scratch the surface of the situation. But, defeating their enemies would only be a short term solution; the demons of Visolensia could physically be defeated, with proper disposal measures including fire, salt, and several incantations. But the spirits of demons always came back, always in force and always full of hatred. No, the duo knew their skills could defeat the demons they came across, but never remove them from the land. They knew the only way to survive here was to flee, to help whoever they could find and shepherd them safely to the closest port and see them set sail off of this cursed place.
A crack of the kindling snapping to the heat caused Jayce to lose focus, and blink to attention. To his side, Sophia sat cross-legged, tracing her fingers in a pattern above the flames. Following where they pointed, Jayce could see embers dancing in elaborate waltzes, spinning and swirling into the empty sky. Funny, thought Jayce, watching her carefree actions. This woman, found just as alone as he was, had been one of the bravest and kindest souls in all of Visolensia. Jayce continued to watch the embers, as memories of their meeting flashed through his mind.
An abandoned farm in the outskirts of one of many long overrun villages, large enough to house a family of four comfortably, and maybe a pair of livestock. Jayce and Runthimus, after several weeks of training, started their quest here. Primarily for resources like food or tools to repair their own. As the two approached, Jayce remembered the air was unusually active, with a heavier than normal gale sweeping the overgrown fields. Around them, stalks of wheat and wildflowers bowed toward the duo, as if showing respect for the would-be demon hunters. Jayce could still recall the scent blowing past them: sweet, like a floral perfume his mother used to wear for festivals, with the tint of metal, like the copper scraps from his father’s workshop. Yes. It was blood, fresh in the breeze and seeming to come from the farm.
The two reached the old farm house several minutes later, opening the worn door carefully, as it creaked on its last holding hinge. The door flew open at their touch, as if the surrounding wind was welcoming in Jayce and Runthimus. Before them was one large room, seeming to make up the majority of the house. And the contents of it… the scene before them was one from a nightmare; dried blood, from unknown origins, stained the floorboards in all directions. The walls, faded floral paint flaking off from age, scarred with shallow slashes and more bodily fluids, dried and now darkened the once bright room.
It was Jayce who had to look away, flashes of his attack weeks prior flooding back. It was Runthimus, however, who took the first step forward. Jayce would remember the stoic face he wore as he entered the room; it was the same face of calm stone that he saw as his mentor approached him that fateful night. A face that truly reflected Runthimus’ age, the same face that had faced thousands of foes before, and saw thousands of deaths that followed. It was a face that could scare the strongest man, and calm the most frightened child, all in a single stare.
At that moment, Jayce believed the scene had brought forth some fury in Runthimus. It only was after Jayce examined the scene himself that he saw this face was meant to calm. Calm someone not quite in focus. The room had appeared an empty ruin, caked with the remains of whoever once lived there. Yet, as Jayce stared and concentrated into the room, a shimmer in the air caught his eye. As he focused on it, the faint scent of magic swirled passed him.
“Runthimus, I take it you already noticed the magic?” Jayce whispered, glancing down to his companion as he stared ahead. Though his face continued facing the magical shimmer, a low growl escaped his mouth.
“Runty. And I focused too much on your swordsmanship. You can’t see her, can you?” Runty took another step forward, raising a finger up to his ear. “Take a moment, and feel the air. It will help your concentration.”
Jayce looked back at the man, slight confusion on his face. Typical Runthimus, thought Jayce. The man, much older in mind than Jayce, had a way of making Jayce learn through action than actually teaching. Still, he was his mentor, and Jayce honored and respected his skills. Turning his head back to the shimmer, he closed his eyes and let out a breath. As he inhaled, Jayce noted the scent was still sweet and metallic, yet mixed lightly with magic and… human. Yes, it was faint, as if hiding behind the more obvious scents, but human nevertheless.
Eyes still closed, Jayce felt his breath catch as he took note of the smell. As he exhaled, the air seemed to push against his breath, almost like he was attempting to blow the air from a cyclone. This sparked an idea in Jayce. What if the air wasn’t just coming through the open windows and into the house, but coming from the house to begin with. As if…
Jayce’s eyes opened with a flash, as if he woke with a start. Now, following the air around him, he traced the magic with his eyes, as it circled the center of the room. Around the shimmer he noticed before. Concentrating again on it, Jayce also took a step forward, hand placed on his side, grasping the hilt of his blade. Jayce recalled the thoughts that were racing through his mind back then; Whatever had caused this death, this destruction within, must surely be hiding here, laying a trap for anyone foolish enough to venture close. With such a magical presence, the creature must be a strong foe indeed. And the faint human smell? Clearly a trick for any adept magic wielders.
As he proceeded to take another step, Runty placed an arm out in front of Jayce, stopping him before he could advance. Looking at him, Jayce could see the stoic face was gone, hidden away again and replaced with the smile he had come to know. “It’s good you can see the strength of this magic. But it’s not what you’re thinking.” Runty turned back to face the shimmer, and moved his outstretched hand to face it. “It’s ok. We mean no harm. You can come out now.”
In front of the bonfire, still watching the dancing embers, a small smile crossed Jayce’s face as he remembered what had emerged from that shimmer that fateful day. He had expected a demon, a monstrous creature with several limbs caked in human viscera, sharp claws heated with magic and ready to pounce. But instead, as Runty smiled and said this to the shimmer, the air seemed to calm, and a form began to materialize before them. Once the air, which Jayce figured had been swirling in the center of the room at such speeds to hide its prize, ceased, it was not a beast that lay before them. Nor was it alone.
The room, now still from the air, now held four beings, the two visitors, a young woman, and a feline-esque creature. The woman, sitting in the middle of the room, held the creature in her arms, holding it close as she stared up at Runty. Jayce could hear the faint purr of the creature escape from the woman’s chest, its limbs hidden by the woman’s arms. The woman’s orange hair, not showing any signs of being wind-swept despite being in the eye of the swirling gale, lay messily about her face. Her eyes, glowing emeralds in this decrepit space, shone lightly in the pale light of the room.
“How did you do that?” Jayce asked, moving forward toward the woman. The movement caught her eyes, causing her to look over at him with shock and fear. The air, only recently settling and resting, seemed to respond to her change in emotions, and began to stir again. Jayce noticed this, and stepped back. “It’s really ok,” he said as he raised his hands to his chest, showing he was no threat to the woman. “We do mean you no harm.”
The woman, verdant eyes still wide with shock, turned toward Runty. His smile still there, he too raised his hands to his chest, palms facing the woman, to show he too was unarmed. As the wind again died down, Runty lowered himself to the ground, kneeling before the woman, eyes locked with hers.
After a few seconds of staring, Runty broke the silence. “You truly are something…”. Runty looked up at Jayce, still standing and looking between the two, and smiled wider. “She’s kinda amazing, no? Making the air hide her presence entirely!”
Jayce nodded in amazement. “That’s an impressive amount of control over Gale magic. Even masters from nearby settlements have less control of more tameable elements.”
“Psh. Better than most I know, or knew, I suppose.” Runty laughed at this, seeming to recall his many years on this plane. “But this was raw and uncontrolled magic. A real expert would’ve hidden her scent. And even the wind itself.”
“Indeed, but still… such power is truly awe inspiring.” Jayce looked back to the woman, listening to the two discuss her potential as though she was not in the room with them. “But was this power the source of this destruction, I wonder?”
“Jayce.” Runty laughed as he looked around the room, a soft judgment in his pronunciation of his name, “Look around. Sure, the scent has faded from the air, but this is the work of a demon, not magic! And what’s more..” Runty pointed a finger toward the still purring creature, huddled in the woman’s arms. “Mixed in all these scents is no trace of the little fella over there! That means these two aren’t from this farm to begin with either!”
Leave it to Runty to make a moment of discovery and survival into a game of detective, thought Jayce, as he smiled at the impressive skill his mentor had shown. “Very true. So then...” Jayce turned to the woman and extended a hand. As he did, the woman flinched. “My name is Jayce, and this man here is Runthi…” A low growl came from Jayce’s side. “…Runty. But you; what name do you go by?”
The woman looked Jayce over, examining his posture and his weapons. As she did, Jayce remembered a cool breeze flowing around his body, sending a shiver down his spine. The woman breathed in, as if to take in the interrogating air, and spoke.
“My… my name is S-Sophia. Frey and I came here looking for supplies for a group nearby. When Frey caught your scent on the wind, I… I panicked and tried to hide. But,” Sophia looked around her, “there aren’t many places to hide in this place. So I prayed for the wind to hide me.”
Jayce’s eyes squinted in consideration of Sophia’s response. He had heard that prayer was a form of magic invocation, but to produce such strong magic…
Runty nodded as he listened. “The grace of wind, through gales of sin, may drift upon our lives.” Jayce looked at the man, trying to interpret his poem. Runty smirked back. “It’s an old hymn, by a powerful Aerocian from years ago. I read about such charms.” He looked back at Sophia. “You truly are magnificent!”
Sophia, through the dirt and cuts dried to her face, blushed at this, seemingly in embarrassment to the attention, and smiled. “I’m glad someone is impressed. Frey here complains with a scratch and howls at the sudden changes to the wind.” At that, the purring creature, Frey, raised its black head and opened its eyes. Four emerald eyes looked around the room, as the creature’s face contorted into a yawn. Sharp teeth shone in the pale light, as a light squeak escaped its mouth.
At the sound, Runty began laughing. The tension in the air broke as his infectious mood spread to Sophia, who began chuckling herself at Frey’s squeak. Jayce, not one to laugh, smiled at the two. That was Runty’s true power - he could calm anyone he met. Anyone, but not anything; his charm had no effect on beasts, nor on demons.
“Well Sophia and Frey!” Runty got to his feet and extended a hand to Sophia. “We’re on a mission to help people in these parts. Let’s look for some supplies together, and get back to your group!” Sophia, still smiling from the laughter, looked up at Runty and took his hand.
The swirling embers in the encampment descended back to the bonfire as Jayce recalled the group’s past. His smile still on his face, thinking of their meeting. Yes, they found some supplies in that old farmhouse. And the three of them, four with Frey, returned to a nearby group of survivors and helped them back to a shoreside settlement. And from there, Sophia chose to join the duo, with Frey by her side, to learn more of her own powers, and to help others along the way. Though Runty had read a book or two on Gale magic, the training had been one of, yet again, trial by fire.
Well, Jayce thought, that was something the two pupils had in common. A teacher who preferred action over lessons. Though… wasn’t that what made Runty a great mentor? Jayce looked to Runty, now sitting against a log across from him. Despite his proximity to the flames and his crazed, and imaginative, reenactment of Jayce’s own day, the man’s face showed no sign of exhaustion or sweat. Runty noticed Jayce in that moment and smiled that infectious smile back at him. Jayce smiled it back, and gave him a nod.
Yes, Jayce thought. That’s what makes him great.
———— Chapter 4 –———
The last crack of the fire seemed to mark the end of the respite, as the three looked around themselves. The rest of the camp, once active during the day, had become somber as the blazing orb of light above had descended behind the nearby trees. Cressedea began her descent hours before, and soon her twin Clemmedeus would keep watch over the weary souls. Now crestfallen, the sky shone a dull lavender and silver. The clouds, previously avoiding the space above the area, now dotted overhead in dark shades of violet. The time of demons was fast approaching.
Jayce got up from his seat on the fallen log and stretched his arms. A light crack escaped his neck. The cot will definitely be a welcomed sight after tonight, thought Jayce. A basic sleeping fabric and simple pillow awaited him after this coming mission, and Jayce could not think of anything more lovely. Well, he could, but those days were gone from him. Taken by the creatures he vowed to destroy. Taken by the demons that were in the mission this evening.
Runty was at his feet with a jump, smiling as he pointed above. “Look at the sky!” His extended finger pointed to an open patch of sky, the colors of the setting star blending together. “Lavender sky, the demons will die! Orange and red, be ready for dread!” Runty laughed as he said this, grabbing his bag as he ran to their nearby shelter.
Sophia smiled at this, and turned to Jayce once she was standing. “He’s definitely not going to sleep after this.” She took out her bag and peered inside. A look of concern flashed across her face, but was replaced with one of consideration. Jayce knew there wasn’t good news with that first look, and knew she was hiding something from him. “Hmmm… we’re running low on frinx root. Better grab some while we’re out…”.
“Shouldn’t be a problem”, Jayce placed a hand on Sophia’s shoulder. She looked up from her bag, eyes wide from the searching, and matched his smile.
“You’re right. Shouldn’t be off the path…” She closed her bag and slung it over her opposite shoulder. As she did, the content within thumped against her back. Jayce thought of the typical contents of the bag on their recent missions; several bags of herbal mixtures, a bottle or two of salve, several waterskins for the group (for emergencies only), and preserved food to maintain their strength. Jayce checked these off as he went, considering how much had been consumed on their last outing. Based on his math, and the sound of the objects in the bag… they were low on food and salve. That would explain the need for the frinx root.
“Hey.” Jayce started walking as she turned to him. Taking his lead toward their shelter, Jayce continued; “If you need to prepare some supplies, Runty and I can handle tonight.” A distant shriek echoed around the forest. The sound of a howling blight was not foreign to those in the camp, especially not to Sophia or Jayce, as the sound marked the beginning of the night. Around them, additional shrieks filled the air.
Sophia smiled warmly at Jayce, and gave him a nod. “You’re right we need some more supplies. But…” she raised a fist to her chest, her face forcing out a look of determination. “I can’t just sit around while my friends risk their lives.” She looked back at Jayce and laughed softly.
“Sophia.” Jayce stopped and looked at his friend. She meant well, of course, but he knew her heart was not in it for this life. Since the group expanded all those months ago, Sophia had been the group’s moral support; after a long day in the nearby forest, or returning from a bloody skirmish, it was Sophia and her kindness that seemed to return the smiles to their faces. It did help that she was the most adept at restoration in their group, aiding to the partner she still had from their initial recruitment. The black feline-esque Frey was not only Runty’s favorite playmate, she was also a Nyat, a species of eternally young creatures, whose fur could be blended with frinx root through aeromansic charms to produce a powerful healing salve. Truly, if not for this fortunate discovery, and Runty’s knowledge of such ancient alchemy, many of the lives in the encampment would’ve been lost forever.
She was these people’s cleric, and could not be put at risk to any attack. But this isn’t why Jayce wouldn’t ask her to join them tonight. No. It was because of her kindness, that sweetness and longing to help. The idea of Sophia killing anything almost brought a frown to Jayce’s face as he stared at the woman. This woman, the moral compass of the group, for her to commit such an immoral act, to strike as if she could maintain the balance of life with a single stroke of a blade. That would truly be the end of all things good in this world.
“Sophia. You should collect supplies tonight. I know we're low.” Jayce nodded toward her bag, still hanging against her shoulder. Another shriek echoed overhead, traveling across the darkening sky. “Besides,” Jayce placed his hand on one of his sheathed weapons. “Someone needs to prepare Frey for Runty’s return. You know how excited he gets after these missions.”
“But, Jayce…”. Sophia began to argue, a look of concern crossing her features as she stepped toward Jayce. Before she could continue, Jayce raised a hand up.
“Please, we’ll be ok. We won’t be unmanned.” Jayce smiled and nodded behind her. Sophia turned and looked in the direction he indicated, toward their shelter, and seemed to relax, her shoulders dropped slightly.
Leaning against the tree abutting their shelter stood a squat woman, her muscular arms crossed as she nodded in agreement. In front of her, an excited Runty was quickly speaking, words assaulting the woman like a flurry of arrows. Not that they would do a thing to the woman, except maybe split a strand of her golden hair. To her left, a massive battle ax lay against the base of the tree, its haft as golden as its owner’s hair.
“Larx!” Sophia yelled, running toward the two short members of the group. As she approached, the woman turned toward the sound, and let out a booming welcome.
“Sophia, my daring!” Larx announced, pushing off of the tree and spreading her arms wide for an embrace. As Sophia ran, a breeze pressed against Jayce’s back, as she propelled herself toward the outspread arms. As the two collided, what could only be compared to a thunderclap reverberated around the camp. Above them, several perched Blights took flight in fear of the sudden noise.
“You made it back!” Sophia proclaimed, breaking from the hug with a good amount of effort and some help from her Gale magic. Taking a step back, her eyes inspected the woman’s form, looking for any wounds to patch.
“No doubt! Someone needs to get this little guy his snacks!” Larx laughed as she tried to pull Runty into her arms. Runty, being used to this, jumped out of the way of the grab.
“Hey, it’s not my fault you’re the only one here who can cook!” Runty giggled.
Jayce approached as Runty landed, standing beside Sophia and shook his head. “We all can cook, Runty.”
“Yeah, I suppose any idiot can throw meat into a fire and call that cooking.” Runty smirked at Jayce, whose calm face seemed to turn a very faint shade of pink.
“In a pinch, it gets the nutrients you need. Sorry survival doesn’t taste like fine dining.” Jayce shook his head. “Honestly, Runty, it’s not like you’re any better.”
“Never aimed to be. But just because I can’t cook, doesn’t mean I won’t eat!” Runty laughed, and turned back toward Larx.
Jayce’s composure returned as he too turned toward the woman. It was true of the four of them, five if you included the nearby sleeping Frey, it was Larx that had mastered the art of cuisine in Visolensia. Born in the port of Senken, the only thriving settlement in this dystopian continent, the woman was raised by a butcher in the ways of meat preparation and chopping. And what is an ax but a much larger meat cleaver?
Larx knew the suffering of this realm as well as any of them - her mother, the Halosian butcher who lost her husband and Larx’s father to pirates on their way to this land, raised her to help the survivors and fortune seekers through their stomachs. She grew up in Senken, meeting numerous people from various stages of their own journeys; from the just arrived warriors, with bright eyes full of determination and grit, to the beaten and defeated few, eyes dulled and desperate for relief. All with stomachs left satisfied after being prepared a meal from the Stralon Stable, and the lovely patrons within.
“Well don’t you worry buddy!” Larx chucked, a low boom from her throat rumbled the air. “With the recent hunt, I managed to prepare some delicious dried meats and rations for the camp! Can’t beat the susoars of these parts!”
The smile resting on Jayce’s face dropped at this, as his thoughts turned back to previous concerns. Surely the countless lives lost to this wretched land could not be measured by some wild beasts of the woods. It was true the meat of the Visolensian susoars, enhanced by magic and their natural immunity to the venoms of worst beings, was a delicacy outside of Visolensia, and its abundance has made the occupancy of this horrible land tolerable to some. But no. For the cost of human lives, no amount of meat was worth that.
Larx, not noticing Jayce becoming lost in his thoughts, continued. “I’ve prepared each of us a bag, ready for our next outings!” She turned her back to the group, flexing her arms as she flashed several pouches strapped to her back. Though they could not see through the blackened exteriors, the light scent of smoked meat wafted in the air. Jayce couldn’t help but notice the air around the bags shifting toward them, as if to entice them with what lay within.
The smell brought Runty to attention, smile widening. “Oh, excellent!” Runty hopped forward and swiped the nearest pouch from around Larx’s arm. As thick as her arm was, Runty’s removal was a smooth action, unnoticeable to the untrained eye. Opening the pouch, he shoved his head within. “Did you remember the salt?”
Jayce rolled his eyes and Sophia and Larx laughed. Typical Runty; no matter the situation, his stomach always prevailed. Though it was one of his more relatable traits. Maybe not to Jayce, but to the others around him. It made Runty appear more… human.
“Runty,” Jayce chimed in, as Runty continued to examine the contents of the pouch. “You said it yourself. Larx knows how to prepare food better than the rest of us. So I couldn’t imagine her not applying the most basic of preparation measures.” He shook his head, wondering what was on Runty’s mind to make him ask such a ridiculous question.
“Actually Jayce,” Larx reached into a pocket in her armor, a metallic apron-like breastplate with built-in sleeves for her various knives and bottles of seasonings. She removed a silver container from her front, raising it to the group. In the setting light, a faint glint of gold shined from within. “I used dried zettir to preserve and flavor the meat.” She returned the bottle of golden flakes to her armor and shrugged. “A slight change in the flavor profile, for sure, though these days no one could tell the difference. Well,” Larx laughed and placed a hand on Runty’s head, still buried in the bag, “no one but our resident demon.”
At this, Runty lifted his gaze from the bag and toward Larx, teeth bared in a playful grin. A low growl escaped his throat, “Oh, demons wished they could be as powerful as me…”. A shadow crossed his features, as the setting light seemed to darken his eyes into a demonic-esque emptiness. Then, as quick as it darkened, his face brightened back up. “The smell was a little more spicy. Definitely will be an exciting change of pace for tonight!” Runty nodded to himself at this, as he closed the pouch and slung it over his own shoulder.
“Ah.” Larx nodded, understanding. “Another mission tonight?”
“Indeed. A reconnaissance mission to the western cliffs.” Jayce extended an arm to take one of the pouches. “We heard news of a settlement in those parts, and the scouts in the area noted increased demon activity.” As Larx placed a pouch into his hand, he could see a frown appear on Larx’s face.
“Is that so?” Larx shook her head, scowling at the thought of demons. “Horrible news to say the least. I thought we cleared the western cliffs of stragglers after the recent storm.”
“Unfortunately, new comers and survivalists believe they can continue into the continent and make a name for themselves.” Jayce shook his head at this, flashes of numerous faces felled by the roaming demons clouding his mind. He shifted the pouch into his shoulder. “Truly with the way things are, we’ll need to perform similar reconnaissance missions every week.”
“There is no rest for the weary”, Sophia added.
“Nor the wicked,” mused Runty.
Jayce smiled at that. “We need a team of three to cover all possible angles of attack,” Jayce continued. He nodded toward Sophia. “Sophia will help in gathering supplies and preparing medicine here, so we were wondering…”
“Join us to kill some demons!” Runty exclaimed, blade raised from its sheath above his head. Much like around the bonfire, the silver glistened in the fading light, as if the blade itself was glowing.
Jayce nodded and continued. “Indeed. We could use your skills in those parts. And I know Runty would never stop ranting over his snacks.” He smiled at this. “Better to have the chef with us to compliment.”
Runty looked at Jayce, feigning shock. “How dare you assume I will be blindly complimenting everything!” Runty shook his head, his face serious. “The art of cooking is the last bastion of class in these parts, and must be reviewed with brutal honesty.”
Jayce looked shocked at this, thinking his comment had insulted his companion. As he prepared an apology in his head, Runty laughed. “Oh Jayce! Lighten up! Anything Larx makes is amazing!” Runty turned to Larx, his smile reflecting onto her face. “So what do you say Larx? Care to kill some demons tonight?”
Larx handed one of the two remaining pouches to Sophia, who accepted the heavy bag with a nod. She reached behind her and grabbed her ax. Despite its size and weight, she lifted it from against the tree and placed it in front of her. The golden hilt shined in a similar fashion to Runty’s blade, still out and lightly glowing. Her grin lightened her features, but a fire seemed to have sparked from behind her ocher eyes. Jayce couldn’t help but admire the combination of fierceness and beauty that reflected in those eyes. If anyone could have survived this long in Visolensia, it was her.
“Sounds great to me!” Larx let out another booming chuckle as that fire in her eyes burned even brighter. “When do we leave?”
———— Chapter 5 –———
A shriek cried out through the night, now settled in place above Visolensia. A howling cry, almost carried by the wind through the vast emptiness of above. As if to fill the void of darkness with something. Anything. Yet even this was fleeting, as it faded back to the quiet firmament that watched over them all.
The group of warriors carried on in silence, Jayce wrapped in his thoughts. Runty had run ahead, still within the group’s line of sight, but using his smaller stature to blend more perfectly to the surrounding darkness, acting as sentry for the path. Not like that mattered much, thought Jayce, catching a glimpse of the short shadow before it melted into the cast loom of a towering tree. If a creature dared meet Runty first, the felled body would be all the notice the other two would have. He did get carried away on these missions. Such senseless killing sometimes.
Larx, often the second most talkative of the group, as no one could match Runty, looked quietly toward the sky. Jayce admired that about their battle-worn chef; she could be the most boisterous warrior with a cry that could, and had, melted the resolve of monsters to nothing more than whimpering, yet in moments like this, she was as calm and collected as he was. Even in the dark, Jayce could see her eyes trace the night sky, though what they followed he couldn’t comprehend. The sky overlooking them, save for the pale light of Clemmedeus, lay empty and dark, as if even the spirits from beyond stayed clear of this wretched land.
The group of three had left their encampment hours ago, after providing a list of additional ingredients to Sophia to be on the lookout for, as well as getting their own from her for items not near the encampment’s farms and supplies. Jayce thought of these lists, and was impressed to see they both were limited to three items each; for Sophia, along with several herbs and spices she used when crafting their salves and potions, which she only listed as ‘herbs’, the group needed leather for armor repairs, and various animal parts for the aforementioned potions.
Jayce couldn’t help but smile at this as they walked, remembering their own meager list from Sophia; as many demonic horn sheddings you can find, a sack of Pyrotrill eggs, and any abandoned supplies worth bringing back. That last one of course brought some debate from Runty, who had tried arguing that “weapons and rocks are great finds that should not be left to rot in these parts!”
That was met with a laugh, along with Runty defending his claim as he reminded them of an abandoned artifact they recovered during a reconnaissance mission, because “it was a really pretty rock.” Runty did show them that day, bringing back what turned out to be a water purification amulet. But no, not every rock needed to be recovered.
However, Jayce understood his teacher was not incorrect in his reasoning on the weapons; after all, if his own weapons were left alone in these parts, wouldn’t all survivors in these lands be doomed from the vile creatures of these parts getting hold of such powerful artifacts?
At this, Jayce’s thoughts drifted toward his weapons, and the origins of how they came into his possession;
Years ago, a young man entered the village known as Serengal. Black hair shining in Cressedea’s glare, the man walked about the modest settlement, introducing himself to each resident with confidence and a welcoming, if not somewhat mischievous, smile. Though he memorized each of their names, they couldn’t seem to remember his. Though, years later, the man knew this wouldn’t matter.
The man’s journey brought him to a small farmhouse on the edge of Serengal; the bright white paint and maroon shutters glowed a light hue in the reflection of the setting star. Inside, a woman’s voice called out, looking for what the man would assume was her child. The child, a son based on the name, was clearly not within the house, as no response came to any of her calls. Closing his eyes as he continued forward, the traveler tuned himself to his surroundings, and made out a small human in the back of the property. A smirk on his face, the man quickened his pace, until he moved silently through the growing shadows toward the boy.
The boy was found by the man, hiding himself atop a particularly well-foliaged tree. The boy, no older than five by the man’s assessment, stood facing another tree. In his hands, rough from childish games and farm chores, was a moderately sized stick, winter’s birch by the look of it. The normally white exterior of the branch looked worn, exposing patches of its signature umber interior. As the man assessed this, the boy swung his weapon and struck the opposing tree with a well defined ‘thunk’.
The winter’s birch opposite the boy, standing tall and proud, shook slightly at this sudden attack. A chip fell from the struck bark, revealing a blemish of brown on the normally white tree. The man eyed the tree around this chip, and noticed several brown spots within hitting range of the child. The man nodded at this, figuring it was a game the child played after his work.
Another ‘thunk’ sounded from the tree, as the boy swung his staff. At this, the man focused his sight on the exact location. Odd, the man thought. The boy’s strike was not some random hit, but appeared calculated. As if he was aiming for something in particular.
The man closed his eyes, and quietly slowed his breath. As he did, his senses expanded, as waving forms materialized in front of his closed eyes. The souls of those around him took shape, and flickered like flames, each a distinct color and size. The man had years, many lives in fact, to master this skill, though even he knew he had much to learn of it. But his understanding of the Unconscious Realm, as his master once called it, was enough to see a being’s soul.
The soul of the boy flickered to life before him, and the man almost broke his silence with a gasp. A swirl of golden white flame, dancing as strong as a man ten times his age, spun around a dark fire, the color of the ocean at midnight. The man watched, as the two opposing flames swirled, not fighting for control, but almost in an eternal waltz, seemingly in perfect harmony.
Another hit of the tree brought the man back to focus, moving his closed eyed gaze toward the boys target. The tree, a young sprout compared to the man’s age, stood strong, its verdant emerald fire shimmering in place. Except…
The man’s breath slowed further, now nearly holding his breath, as he focused his thoughts to several spots flickering around the green flame. Dark voids, empty yet somehow pulsing, spotted the flame, as if infecting it with their presence. The man understood this sight, it was a far too common sight in Visolensia; demonic venom, seeping from the ground through the roots, was tainting and corrupting the soul of the tree. Soon, it would erase the soul of the tree, leaving nothing but a void and further corruption of this land.
The man watched as one of the voids vanished, the green flame flickering that much brighter. The man opened his eyes, still trained on the spot where the void had been on the tree’s soul. As his eyes adjusted to the waking world, he realized his sight was now trained on a freshly made brown spot, created just moments ago by the boy’s strike.
This revelation brought a smile to the man’s face, and he knew he found what he had been searching for. With a silent leap, the man landed behind the boy, who was preparing for another strike of the tree.
“Well now… what did that poor tree ever do to you?”
The boy, startled by the sudden voice, turned to face the visitor, dropping his branch. The man looked down at the boy, though in truth only a foot taller than him, and continued to smile. After assessing the man, the boy returned the smile and turned toward the tree.
“It’s sick.” The boy said, reaching down for his staff. As he picked it up, he repositioned himself to strike again. “I’m helping it.”
The man nodded at this. Maybe the boy could see, or at least sense, the voids. Interesting. “I see. And in helping it, you’re hitting the snot out of it!” This made the man chuckle, to try and get the boy to laugh with him.
“I have to.” The boy said matter-of-factly, with the man’s joke ignored. “Else the dots will spread.”
“Ah, now I see.” The man nodded, smile from his failed joke dropping slightly to his signature smirk. “Well, let me help you.”
The boy only nodded, returning the smirk with a smile, and turned back to the tree. As he raised his weapon to strike, the man stopped him. “Hold your back straight, and calm your breathing.” The man stepped forward and put his hand against the boy’s back. “It will help you focus on the dots.”
The boy’s breath eased, as his eyes seemed to focus on one spot in particular. As he did, the man too focused toward the tree, revealing the spotted emerald flame again. A swing, thunk, and second later, one less spot polluted the flame.
“Excellent shot!” The man exclaimed, removing his hand from the boy's back. The boy looked back to him, smiling at the praise. “But…” the man took a step forward. “You’ll hurt the tree too much if you keep this up. Those dumb dots keep growing, right?”
“Yes sir. You can see them too?”
“Oh, I can. And I know just how to beat them.” The man placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, guiding him to the side. The boy, understanding this and moving aside, watched as the man now stood where the boy had, his hand now lowered to his side. It was then that the boy got a look at this stranger, and saw the sheathed blade being pulled out to face the tree.
In the stranger’s hand was a magnificent blade. Its golden hilt shone in the setting light, as the white blade seemed to glow radiantly. It looked funny in the hands of the man, who’s short stature was only slightly taller than the blade, yet somehow the man was able to not only move around without the blade dragging, but even wield it in a single hand.
The man saw the boy’s shocked, yet admiring, gaze, and nodded toward the sword. “This is an old friend of mine. In the common tongue, she goes by ‘Justice’.” The man returned his focus to the tree. “Now watch the dots face her wrath.”
With that, the man lunged forward, swinging his blade smoothly through the air. In a breath, the blade had completed an arc, pointing toward the ground on the opposite side of the tree.
“The dots… mister, they’re gone!” The boy shook his head, running over to the tree. The man nodded as he sheathed the massive blade. “But…” the boy continued, as he reached the tree and touched its bark, “what about the tree?”
“It’s a strong one, this tree.” The man smiled, and knocked on the bark. Three thumps rang out as he did. “Justice can purge evil things from souls. Unless the soul is too hurt, the body will be unharmed.”
“Really?” The boy looked down toward the sheathed blade, eyes full of wonder. The man could see a spark of excitement behind his crimson irises.
“With plenty of training. You wouldn’t be able to.” The man looked down at the boy, as some of the spark faded. “Not yet, anyway.”
With that, the boy looked at the man with a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”
The man lowered himself onto his knee, leveling himself to meet the boy's stare. “You have a special skill, being able to see those dots. I want to train you in the ways of the sword. Would you like that?”
The spark of the boys eyes blazed back as they widened with excitement. A boyish smile broke across his face, revealing several gaps from lost baby teeth. “Really?!”
The man got up, and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Oh course! These days, we could use some more warriors! Now, what is your name?”
“Jayce…” the man thought the name, committing it to his vast memory. He smiled at Jayce. “Nice to meet you, Jayce. Name’s Runthimus, but please, call me Runty.”
Yes, Jayce thought, that was the first time he met his mentor. And the first time he saw the strength of one of the blades strapped to his side; Justice, as Runty had called her on that day, was one of the two blades Jayce used frequently in his missions, for it was a blade that could purify this land of its vile wickedness.
The blade known simply as ‘Justice’, a sword made of blessed steel and gold from an ancient religious relic, was presented to Jayce after several years of training with Runty. On that fateful day, after his first mission, a successful rescue of a lost child from a corrupted beast, Jayce was presented with Justice, and sage advice from his mentor.
“Remember Jayce,” Runty told him, staring into their bonfire that evening. “This blade has holy magic imbued into it, that is true. But it also reflects the soul of its holder. When I first met you, I saw your soul’s flame. It has only grown since we met, and the purity it holds makes Justice stronger than I could make it.”
At that, Runty had turned to Jayce and gave him that signature Runty smile, and continued. “Maybe it was Justice that led me to you that day. That sword connects to its wielder’s soul, after all. Perhaps it used my skills, to sense you.”
Ever since, Jayce took the utmost care of this sword. And, in turn, Justice defended her wielder in every encounter they met. Over the years, Jayce understood what Runty saw when they first met, all those years ago - Justice seemed to resonate with his soul, the part of his soul that strives for balance, the pure desire for life and the protection of all those blessed by its breath and touch. It is this part of his soul that he cherished above all else, for it was this part of him that assured Jayce he was still human, no matter what.
Written by Christopher Rentko