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———— Chapter 6 ————


The group’s journey came to a halt only three times. Once was for Larx and Runty to relieve themselves, with Runty exclaiming that this “was part of his plan”, and that “they needed to hide their scents with natural camouflage.” This made Jayce roll his eyes while Larx laughed and agreed.


The second, Runty had sensed something off ahead of them, so the group prepared themselves for an ambush. As the figure approached, Runty confirmed it was a corrupted soul approaching. The beast stepped out of the brush and into a small opening in the canopy, revealing an adult susoar, its hide matted with dried blood and dirt. It hardly had a chance to flee as Jayce cleansed its soul, and Larx dealt the finishing blow. As it fell, the body sizzled internally, its venom leaking through the muscle. Runty complained that he didn’t get a chance to fight, though both he and Jayce knew Larx was the only of the two who could end the beast’s life as painlessly and swiftly as possible.


Now they were on their third stop for the evening, in a clearing just before the cliffs. To the south, the settlement was supposedly through the brush. However, not wanting to scare anyone with their sudden arrival, and to keep an eye out for demonic activity, the group made their camp. It was decided, once Cressedea graced the sky with her light, the group would meet with the settlers, and attempt to convince them to leave with them.


For now, however, the group sat around a fire, as Larx prepared the fresh susoar meat for the group. “Honestly, with such fine meat just walking up to us,” Larx said, looking up from the stone as the slab of cut meat sizzled and cracked. “One could see the benefits of this place.”


Jayce shook his head. “If the beast wasn’t suffering as it was, I would not have condoned such actions.” Jayce looked toward the thicket behind them, his and Runty’s shadows dancing to the flames against the thick tree line. “The damage it took, and the voids on its soul… there’s a demon around here.”


Runty, seated next to Jayce, nodded and lay back on the ground, feet toward the open flame. “Yeah, the demon around here has done a number on the life. Most of the trees are showing the start of the voids.” Runty looked over to Jayce as he continued, “It's getting bad here.”


Jayce nodded and looked up to Larx, who was lost in her cooking as she ground herbs together from her pack to make a quick seasoning for Runty’s meat. Even with them talking about such bleak topics, Larx still managed to focus on them, and their preferences. Well, mostly Runty’s. Jayce would’ve been content with just his prepared meal of dried meat and fruit.




“Hmm?” She looked up at Jayce, as she continued to grind, pestle in hand.


“You would know better than either of us, but where do we find Pyrotrill eggs?” This was something Jayce lacked proper knowledge on. Growing up in Serengal, and traveling with Runty, Jayce only ever saw a Pyrotrill from afar, often crossing the nearby ocean, as they escaped this wretched land.


In appearance, the Pyrotrill stood at the size of a child, with two pairs of wings attached to its four limbs. Each limb ended in three curved claws, while the head was ridged with splitting horns. The ends of these horns were open cavities, where the creatures emitted a highly flammable gas. As such, these winged beasts often ignited their scaled, flameproof exteriors, as they dive for aquatic prey. Though not dangerous to humans, their more skittish nature kept them away from humans. Which made the restorative power of their eggs all the more valuable; it is said one Pyrotrill egg has the magic to cure the venom of any beast. Well, almost any, for demons, Jayce considered, could not always be considered beasts.


Larx thought for a second, looking up and tracing the glinting dots of light above them. “They’re typically found at cliffsides, overlooking the ocean.” She extended a finger upward and arched it toward the south, in the direction of the supposed settlement. “If this settlement is along the cliffs, we might find a nest or two close to it, or even on top of any structures we find.”


Before Larx could continue, Runty cleared his throat. The sudden sound caught the other two’s attention, who turned to face their companion. Runty leaned forward, face serious and shadows shifting across his features. “I’m sorry, but can’t you feel it? The wind is still here. And the smells and sounds are… off”.


Jayce took a moment, closing his eyes to feel the area around them. While his teacher had lifetimes to master this skill, Jayce’s years of training sharpened his senses. Now in the silence of the clearing, he focused toward the surrounding brush. Silence. No rustling, no shifting. Not even the twitch of a leaf in the wind. And the smell…


“It… smells like cooked meat?” Larx asked, looking between the two. “And… sea air?”


Jayce opened his eyes, shaking his head. “Beyond that. That is our meal. But that’s all there is. Only our meal.”


“And the obvious smells of nature, exactly”, Runty finished Jayce’s thought. “There aren’t any signs of life anywhere near us. Not even the sound of sleeping beasts or people.” Runty shook his head and leaned forward toward the fire. As he did, the smoke of the fire swirled around as his breath reached it. “This feels like before… in Serengal.”


Jayce nodded and reached toward his side. Yes, he thought, just like then. When the demons attacked. When he took Karma into his hands and tainted his soul forever. In an instant, the scene flashed before his eyes.


———— Chapter 7 –———

Even after his first mission, and his now ownership of Justice, Jayce felt incomplete. It had been long known to him, after training with his master and becoming a master in his own right, that his soul was a blend of two, not one. As such, he knew, deep inside, that even if part of his soul resonated and empowered the sword known as Justice, another part lay dormant. Or worse, lay in wait to engulf and corrupt him.


He had tried dual wielding weapons throughout his training, and indeed had become proficient in the usage of a second blade. But whether it was a blade custom forged for him by his neighboring blacksmith, or even the heroic weapon of his late father, no weapon could resonate with his other half quite like Justice did.


The day he found his second weapon was the day he lost everything else. Almost like some sick form of balance in the world, to become whole you must lose part of yourself. Or in the case of Jayce, lose what you once called home.


The day started different than others; there was a chill in the air, sharper than expected for that time of year. The breeze drifting passed carried with it a stale smell, not the typical mixture of foliage and dried crops mixed with distant sea air. It wasn’t a smell of some inclement weather or death, but a smell of unease, and almost mystery.


Jayce woke up in his house, the same white farmhouse he grew up in, to the smell entering his room. Throughout his training, he learned how to sleep shallowly, to keep him alert and ready for any attacks that might come their way. Though this could be seen as paranoid to most - after all, though there were always the potential of demon attacks, his village had remained untouched by one in over two decades. The common belief in Serengal was the demons either did not know they were there, or they did not care and would leave the humans in peace. Surely if towns like the Port of Senken could exist in Visolensia without demon attacks, then why couldn't Serengal?


Jayce knew better though, and kept this practice up. Demons were not ones to forgive or forget, and were not ones to share with any creature in peace. Missions in the surrounding areas had shown him what the demons thought of the human occupation in these wretched lands, and what they thought of the humans who sold out their own kind to the wicked monsters. If Jayce hadn’t grown accustomed to such scenes, it would’ve made him shutter and shut down.


Getting out of bed, Jayce couldn’t feel Runty’s presence in the house. Not that Runty couldn’t hide himself if he didn’t want to, but on a normal morning? No, Jayce concluded, Runty was most likely out in the field, feeding the Stralons again. Runty loved all things nature, and thus had a deep connection with the simple beasts of burden.


Once dressed, Jayce left his room and entered the kitchen, noting his mother’s work boots were missing in the next room, along with a set of pails and her work apron, normally rested beside the door. I suppose they both are out, Jayce thought, unsurprised by this discovery. Just a normal morning, with plenty of chores to do. Runty must…


What followed next was a bloodcurdling scream. The scream of a woman, crying out into the stale air for a second, before being silenced forever. The sound traveled wildly through the air, unsure where to go or who to alert. But the volume carried, and the sharp pitch of agony and death echoed outward, breaking all concentration.


Jayce recognized the owner of that scream, and was out the door before the scream ceased.


In a matter of seconds Jayce was outside and running toward the southern field. As he ran, sharp shrieks of fear carried from behind him, from the direction of the village. He knew what this was - an attack, a surprise attack from some outside assailants. Demons or man, he couldn’t tell from the screams. But danger, nevertheless.


He reached the gate of the field, cloaked in the shade of the surrounding forest, and saw five bodies within; four lay unmoving, as if rocks against the scenery, and one standing over the four, blade glinting in the rising light of Cressedea. As Jayce raced closer, his eyes adjusted and could make out the forms; two Stralon, their massive bodies of muscle now nothing more than bulbous mounds of nothingness, what appeared to be a human mixed with a snake, based on the long, twitching tail that let out a ‘ch ch’ sound as it spasmed, and the last… a human. A woman. His mother.


The man standing over the dying serpent demon and the dead innocents was his teacher, blade spotted with black from ending the demon’s massacre.




Runty turned to face Jayce, and Jayce stopped, seeing the look on his teacher’s face. His normally youthful appears was gone, aged rapidly to reveal a mix of so many repressed emotions. Anger, fury, worry, and… fear? Jayce had never seen Runty anything worse than annoyed, even in the face of demons. This look stopped Jayce in his tracks, as he understood the seriousness of the situation.


“Jayce,” Runty said, taking a step forward and sheathing his blade. Behind him, the demon’s tail continued to rattle, almost in time to Jayce’s breath. “I’m sorry. Before I could sense them, the demons began an attack. Your mother…”. At this, Runty looked behind him again, to the crumpled up body laying facedown in the mud.


Jayce walked past Runty and looked down at the body. The body belonged to a middle aged woman, black hair falling wildly across the back of her neck, as her face lay in the wet earth below them. Her slender physique lay unmoving, with limbs splayed out in various directions. Her back, covered by a once light blue top, now showed four fist sized holes, piercing through and, based on the depth and blood coming through them, cutting into the front of her chest.


This was his mother. This was the woman who raised Jayce all his life. The woman who took in wary travelers and gave them sanctuary for whatever duration they needed. The woman who raised the strongest Stralon in these parts. The woman who could stop the strongest warrior in his tracks with a single raised eyebrow, a feat Runty had experienced numerous times throughout the years. The woman who now lay lifeless at his feet, unceremoniously tossed into the mud, as if she was nothing more than garbage to feed to the livestock.


Tears blurred Jayce’s vision, as the distant screams and cries from the village drifted into the air. But they were nothing to Jayce, just dull sounds in the wind, miles and miles away from him. The world seemed to shift beneath his feet, as he staggered back, away from his mother’s corpse. Corpse. Yes, Jayce thought, mind emptying in shock. She is a corpse.


At this, Jayce heard a voice from behind him, as if being whispered into his ear. “A corpse… a corpse they made…the demons… they took her away… and now they are taking it all away…”. The voice seemed so close, yet also far away. Yet Jayce could tell what direction it was coming from, like a friend calling to him from across the field.


“Find me…” the voice danced lightly across his empty mind. “Find me and right the wrongs of these monsters...”


“I will.” Jayce said aloud. He shook his head, wiping the streaming tears from his eyes. As he came to, the dull sounds from the village roared back to life, becoming a cacophony of pain and destruction. Jayce looked toward the sounds, and saw billows of smoke rising in the distance, where the village stood.


“Jayce, we have to go.” Runty stepped forward and placed a hand on Jayce’s chest. He knew this was a sign of comfort, to show him that Runty was there for him, but Jayce stepped back at this touch, and turned toward the forest behind him. In that direction, the fence that had once protected the field from wild beasts lay in pieces, most likely shattered when the demon attacked. The missing Stralon from the field, the ones not butchered at his feet, were probably in the forest, fleeing the carnage behind them. Or we’re already lost.


“I heard something. Something calling for me.” Jayce turned and stepped toward the hole in the fence, careful not to step on any of the bodies at his feet. Once out of their way, Jayce began walking forward.


“What voice?” Runty asked, following behind Jayce as he walked. “You’re in shock, Jayce. We need to go and help those people. They’re defenseless without us.”


“Listen to the screams, Runty. Look at the fires.” Jayce continued forward, closing the gap between the fence and himself. “We need to end this once and for all. And the voice said it would do that.”


Runty ran ahead of him and now stood in front of Jayce, looking up at him with eyes of concern. “Jayce, this could be a trap. We can’t just leave them, regardless of what you heard.”


Jayce stopped and looked at his teacher. In Runty’s eyes, he saw more than just concern for Jayce and the people of his…no, their, village. He saw himself, his face reflected in Runty’s wide blue eyes; his face was stoic, almost inhuman, with fiery red eyes blazing with anger. No… not anger. Anger was too simple. Hate. Yes, that was it. Hate. Hate to those demons, that killed without remorse. Without feeling.


Jayce saw himself and closed his eyes. In the darkness, flashes of red and thoughts of violence spun about his mind. Jayce let out a breath, and he collected his thoughts, trying to cool himself down. In a second, his mind dulled to a less vibrant red, and he breathed out.


“We will avenge her.” Runty said, again placing a hand on Jayce’s chest. Unlike before, Jayce did not step away, and accepted his teacher’s words. Jayce opened his eyes and nodded. His mind was calmed, save for the lingering thought, the whisper that led them to the edge of his field.


“I know,” Jayce said, looking up from Runty’s face and toward the woods. “But something spoke to me, saying it could right the wrongs of the demons.”


Runty followed Jayce’s gaze and concentrated. Jayce looked down, and saw Runty squinting into the tree line, as if ignoring their massive forms to see what may be hidden within. With that, Runty let out a gasp, eyes widening.


“Go.” Runty turned back and looked at Jayce. “I’ll defend the village. But be careful.” Runty punched Jayce’s shoulder, and let a smirk cross his face. “And don’t expect any demons here when you get back.”


Jayce returned the smirk and nodded, though he knew this was no time to joke. At this, Runty sprinted past Jayce, back toward the village, still burning and splattered with distant cries for help. Jayce, not wanting to look back toward the scene, and toward his mother, ran forward, entering the thicket in seconds.


The trees enveloped Jayce, and soon the distant screams faded back to silence. The trees stood motionless, no sound passing through their still leaves. Even Jayce’s steps, quick and light, seemed soundless. As he ran down the path of crushed soil, most likely from the escaping livestock and incoming demon, he focused on the whisper in the back of his head. The voice continued its beckon, getting louder as he continued forward.


The path seemed to shift downward, as the surrounding slope descended toward a nearby ravine. Jayce knew this area well enough, coming here as a child with Runty to take breaks from practice and watch the flowing water, as it descended into the earth, and bend toward the village, feeding the wells of the farmhouses miles away.


The path seemed to end at the edge of the ridge, splitting into different directions. Jayce closed his eyes and listened, and turned toward the west, where the voice was no longer a whisper, but an audible cry.


“Come find me.” The voice, emotionless and sounding like his own, called out from the ravine. “Let me help you right these wrongs.”


Jayce ran ahead, taking careful quick steps down the side of the ravine. Using tree limbs and trunks outcropping from the side of the ridge, Jayce made his way to the bottom of the valley, and followed the stream. In moments, he was standing before a earthen wall, as the water snaked into the ground and, eventually, back toward his farm.


To the left of this dead end, a dilapidated structure sat, forgotten to all but the nature around it; vines and moss grew over the surface of its stone exterior, eroded slowly by time to show its age. The structure, a shrine by its appearance, stood over ten feet tall, loomed over Jayce, it’s cobweb infested openings almost screaming at him as he observed it.


The voice, now screaming, came from within. Jayce took in a breath, and stepped forward.


The shrine, small enough to comfortably seat one person, housed a single item against its far wall; a sword, dully shining in the faded daylight coming in from being Jayce, sat unmoving and silent. Its form appeared no different from Justice’s, with a hilt of spiked edges jutting on either side, and a diamond shaped gemstone resting between hilt and blade. The voice had stopped, but Jayce understood this was what had called him. He closed his eyes and felt for a soul. But all he could sense was his own. He opened his eyes, and grabbed the blade.


In an instant, a surge of energy rushed over Jayce. The blade, once a full dark gray, rippled and shimmered, an oily black sheen spreading across it as he held it in his hand. He felt it almost sing in his mind, that feeling of emptiness he felt vanishing as his soul tied to the blade.


Yes, thought Jayce, turning the blade in his hand to get a feel for its weight. This was what was missing. And this will help me get my vengeance.


A ‘ch ch ch’ sound brought Jayce back from his thoughts, as he remembered he had left his flank exposed as he was in the shrine. Turning around, Jayce was standing before a large shadow, raised slightly above his head and looking down at him hungrily. The creature, similar in appearance to the felled demon in his field, stood eight feet tall, with two outstretched arms coming from an exposed feminine chest. Black veins etched across its scaled body, as its lower half, a large serpentine tail, coiled on the ravine floor. The source of the sudden sound, the rattle on its tail, continued to ‘ch’ in time with the demons breathing.


“Well well well,” the demon hissed, a curved smile forming on its sharp face. A pair of forked tongues danced as it spoke. “A straggler from the hunt. I guess my sisters must have missed you. We better help reunite you with your kin, no?” The smile, now beaming down at Jayce, revealed several sharp fangs, each glinting with dripping venom. Its arms, ending in four massive claws, twitched, the creature preparing to strike.


The sound of its tail had alerted Jayce. The sight of the creature had angered Jayce. But it was that twitch of its claws that separated Jayce from the moment; the claws, four massive spikes, ready to pierce him. Pierce him like they did the body in his field. His mothers body.


The voice was back, emanating from the blade now gripped in his hand. “End this thing. Stab it like it stabbed your mother. Avenge her loss. Kill the demon!”




The demon’s tail rattled as the demon’s muscles tensed, prepared to strike.




The demon stood still, facing the shrine. Behind it, Jayce, blade glowing violet, it’s oily black sheen swirling around it like an aura, stood equally still. Drops of black dripped form the blade’s point, splashing noiselessly onto the fallen leaves beneath the two fighters.




The demon’s upper half slid from atop its lower half, landing on the ground with a wet slap. The demon uttered a gurgling cry, as its tail fell loudly to the side, tail still twitching and ratting like the other felled creature. 


Jayce looked back toward it, malice in his eyes, and knew this would not be enough. Turning back toward his farm, he ran up the side of the ravine. He knew there were more he could enact his karmic retribution against. In thinking this, the sword seemed to vibrate, as the voice echoed his vengeful wishes.


“Yes. Kill them all. Kill those demons. Enact your Karma. Bring them down with your Karma.”


———— Chapter 8 –———

The memory flashed before Jayce’s eyes in an instant, as he recalled that fateful day. Yes, that day he had gained Karma, an extension of his anger, his fury, his desire for vengeance. But I’m filling this missing void, he lost his village, his home, his mother. Funny, Jayce had thought afterwards. The entire event now felt like karmic retribution. Ironic, in a poetic way.


“You’re right, Runty.” Jayce nodded. “This feels exactly like the attack. This must be a trap.”


At this, Runty got up and stretched, hands over his head. He let out a yawn as he composed himself. “Well that’s boring! These demons setting up a trap? How predictable!”


Larx backed away from flame, her face flickering in the light as the roasting susoar’s smoke drifted lazily around her. “What if this isn’t the demons? Our scouts hadn’t heard or seen any signs of trouble. And no demons in the area. What if this is the plot of a rogue?”


“We can’t be so sure of either case,” Jayce followed Runty in getting up from their seat. It’s true, he pondered. This land corrupted all things, not just the beasts and the demons. Man could be corrupted all the same. “But either way, I don’t think waiting here until morning is wise.”


“Right you are, Jayce!” Runty stood atop the log they had just gotten up from, and pointed in the direction of the settlement. “If we wait here, it’s asking for trouble. But!” Runty turned toward Larx and gave her a pitiful look of begging. “Can we please take this meal to go? We can’t waste it!”


Larx laughed as Jayce rolled his eyes. Typical Runty, never letting a meal go disrespected. Though Jayce agreed with this sentiment. They would need their strength, and it would be a shame to dishonor the felled susoar in such a manner.


“Of course, Runty!” Larx smiled at the man, face returned to its normal composure. “Give me a moment, and we can check out the settlement.

As the group pushed through the clearing, the night sky seemed to open up. In the sky above, Clemmedeus shone dully down, lighting their path. With Justice extended to cut the brush from their path, Jayce led the three toward their destination.


The trio cleared the brush, entering an opening in the tree line. Before them, open air engulfed the horizon, as they were looking out over the cliffs of the south. To their right, a trail of sand wound along the tree line.


Jayce glanced back at his companions. “This is a man-made trail. Must have been used to silently travel for supplies.” At this, the three stepped onto the path, and made their way toward the settlement.


As they walked, Jayce noticed flowers spotting the path. Glowing white in the light, their dainty appearance made them appear alien in this land. Then again, Jayce thought, nothing was right with this land to begin with.


Jayce looked around and noticed his friends were also noticing the plants. Runty was eyeing each one, watching them with deep thought and observation, as if waiting for something to happen to them. Larx, on the opposite end, looked away from them, her normally smiling face now in a deep frown of discomfort. 


The flowers, seven white petals pointed toward the sky, shook in the dull ocean breeze. Their purple stems bowed to the travelers, while silver stamen glittered with violet pollen. As they danced in the breeze, the voices began.


“Please, don’t!”


“Oh my gods!”


The voices brought the group to a halt, as the disembodied voices screamed out from around them. Jayce, hand still holding Justice, readied the blade in the direction of the last voice.


“What was that?” Jayce whispered, looking back toward his companions, and his tension lowered. Runty, still observing the flowers, turned to look up at Jayce with a look of both confusion, and understanding. Larx stood off to the side of the path, skin pale as the flowers’ pedals.


“Jayce, calm yourself.” Runty rose and pointed toward a flower in the path. “These are the source of the voices. They’re chatterlillies.”


Jayce looked at Runty, and then back at the flower before them. The plant, the chatterlillie, continued to wave in the breeze, pollen breaking from it and spinning off into the trees. As he watched, he saw the petals seem to quiver. Then, a young sounding voice echoed into the air.


“I’m over here!”


A shiver ran down Jayce’s spine as the flower continued to wave. That wasn’t a random voice, he realized. That was the voice of a young child. He looked back at Runty, who gave him a knowing frown.


“It didn’t take the voice, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Runty walked in front of Jayce and touched the chatterlillie. As he did, the voice repeated its cry, though weaker than before. “The chatterlillie is a special plant; it grows at the place of death, and repeats the dying person’s last words or thoughts.” Runty got up and turned to Jayce, placing a hand on his chest. “They connect to the souls of the lost, as a way of both closure, and so they can speak.”


“Speak?” Jayce looked down at the flower, and again at Runty. “These flowers are sentient and can speak back?”


Both Runty and Jayce were shocked when Larx spoke up. Though her voice was shaking, she recited a poem;


“Chit chat, pit Pat

The chatterlillie sings

Of wing flap, zip zap

Of future bells to ring


Chit chat, nip nap

Chatterlillies truth

Bing bap, snip snap

Of what was done, to do


For words they speak

From growth beneath

At first is future’s veil


For start, no end

They speak again

The chatterlillies’ tale.”


The two looked at her in confusion. Larx, still pale in the light of the moon, looked at her companions with fear in her eyes. “That was a poem my sister used to sing to me. They… they are evil plants.”


At that, the air was silent, save for the rustling of leaves in the wind, and the dwindling cries of the chatterlillies around them. After a moment, Runty was by Larx’s side, placing a hand on her back. Though Larx stiffened at the touch, she looked down at him and nodded. Runty continued.


“Chatterlilllies aren’t sentient like you or I. Rather, they have a magical link to the realms beyond, hence their ability to grow at the sites of loss.” At this, he sincerely looked at Larx, with knowing and calm eyes. “As well as their ability to predict the future.”


“The future?” Jayce looked back at the flowers, noticing many more in the path ahead. “But these seem like the last words of settlers here. Nothing about the future.”


Larx stepped forward, arms wrapped around herself as she did. “Look, they’re a bad omen. They don’t grow naturally, and they only say things to hurt you. Trust me, we need to move on. Now.”


At that, Larx passed Jayce on the path, and continued ahead. Runty was close behind, tapping Jayce on the shoulder as he passed, nodding forward.


Jayce understood this was not the time to ask questions, and followed the two toward the settlement. As they walked, more chatterlillies popped up and spoke, as if to warn the three from venturing closer.


“Son, where are you?”


“Oh my gods!”


“Not like this!”


As the lost voices chimes around them, carried by the wind as though cheering them on, Jayce caught up to Runty. Larx, her pace quickened since they resumed down the path, was far ahead of the two.


“Runty, is Larx ok?” Jayce asked, expressing concern for his friend in his voice. Runty looked up to Jayce and gave him a reassuring smile.


“She’s shocked, more so than any of us for finding these chatterlillies. But she will be fine.” Jayce gave Runty a quizzical look, and was about to follow up with more questions. Before he could, Runty continued, face becoming serious. “I cannot say any more on this, however, I would advise not pushing the subject.”


Jayce understood this, and the two walked ahead. After a minute of listening to the din around them, Jayce thought of another question that had been sitting in his mind.


“Why haven’t we seen these flowers before now? If they appear after someone has died, surely Serengal would have been full of them?”


Runty responded quickly, as if waiting for this question to be asked. “Chatterlillies thrive on salt. And nothing’s saltier than the air by the sea. But.” Runty looked behind them and back ahead. “Have you counted how many chatterlillies we’ve passed already? If there has been this much death from the settlement…”


“That means this is a trap.” Jayce nodded.


“Most definitely.” Runty agreed.


A look passed between the two at that, and they tensed in anticipation. With that, they continued in relative silence, catching up with Larx as they left the path, and entered the settlement.


———— Chapter 9 –———

The path before the trio opened up to an outcropping of stone along the cliffs, surrounded by felled logs and set stones, forming a primitive wall around the settlement. If you could call what remained a settlement.


Before them lay a dozen destroyed structures, their foundations exposed to the salt-ridden air, freckling the concrete with corrosive wear. The walls and roofs that once protected their interiors and residents from the elements, now lay piled around the foundations, wood splintered and stone cracked from some external force. Whether it was natural or demonic, Jayce could not tell.


Jayce’s eyes danced around the area, picking up on the various shades of brown and gray. The only relief to these colors of rubble and earth were the dots of white scattered everywhere. Chatterlillies waved listlessly among the destroyed buildings and walkways, the last living residents in the place. Thank the gods, Jayce thought, they are silent now. His eyes glanced toward Larx, who continued in silence, thoughts to herself and fingers curled into fists. 


The rubble of the structures formed a circle around them, surrounding a stone ring that was most likely a communal fire pit. Now the ring lay abandoned, surrounded by the shattered homes of at least twelve families, nowhere to be seen.


As they walked, Jayce heard Runty clicking softly to himself. If he hadn’t lived with Runty all of these years, he wouldn’t have noticed the light ticks he made with his tongue, coming to a steady pace as they moved toward the center of the settlement.


They reached the center of the circle and stood before the fire pit. Inside they could see blackened stone, though bare earth showed through the bottom, as the breeze had blown any collected soot away into the wind. A sparkle of gold caught Jayce’s eye, resting to the side of the pit. Bending over, Jayce picked up a darkened ring, its gold dusted with soil and soot. Wiping it off with a cloth, he saw he held what could have been mistaken for a wedding band, small enough to fit a woman’s finger. The exterior showed signs of symbols, interwoven into looping vines. He closed his eyes, and got up.


“Based on the design on this ring,” Jayce said, passing the ring to Runty for him to examine, “this probably was a missionary group from the nation of Khult.” Jayce remembered a previous encounter with a pair of them, each wearing well cleaned robes and golden bands matching the design.


Runty took the band and examined it. After a moment, he nodded. “If not the whole settlement, at least this poor soul. These rings are considered sacred to them, and they would never part with it unless forced to.” At this, Runty pocketed the ring, and looked back to Jayce.


“Did you see the flowers in this place?” Larx spoke, voice hardly a whisper. “There have to be at least fifty here.”


“Fifty seven.” Runty said solemnly, as Jayce realized that was the clicking he had heard as they entered; Runty had counted each chatterlillie in the settlement. “Though that is only the ones I could sense. Some might be buried.” He turned around, facing the path out of the settlement.


“This had to be the work of demons.” Larx let out, eyes narrowing in anger. Jayce nodded at this.


“More than that,” Jayce added, placing a hand on the hilt of Justice. At this movement, Larx understood and reached behind her, gripping the handle of her battle-ax. “The amount of loss here, combined with the bad intelligence. This is a trap.”


Larx’s pale face glowed in the moonlight, as it creased into a weak smile. “Figures. First mission in a while with you two, and it’s into an ambush.” At this, she pulled her ax over her shoulder, and readied it.


Jayce smiled back and nodded. “Sorry about that. Seems Runty and I attract the demons too frequently.” Jayce looked back toward Runty for a response, as the moonlight above them blinked out for a moment, clouds blotting out the light. He caught Runty’s expression, and stopped smiling.


Runty’s eyes, still staring down the path, were darting from side to side, as if following an insect zipping around the air. After a second of this, Runty blinked, and readied himself.


“Seven of them,” he whispered, pulling a blade from his waist. He sniffed the air. “They may be the ones who did this, but they have been here for some time. Their smell is weak, but scattered around the area.”


Jayce looked forward down the path and closed his eyes. As he focused his mind forward, he could only sense the flicker of souls around him, with nothing but darkness before his impaired vision. He opened his eyes.


“No souls in that direction, so they must be demons. But,” Jayce added, “how can you tell how many there are?”


Runty pointed toward Clemmedeus, hovering behind them as it continued its descent toward the horizon. In the distance, soft black clouds drifted through the air.


“Watch the path, and you will see.” Runty whispered, and pointed back toward the forest.


As he did, the shadow of the clouds drifted over their light source, blinking out the light like it had moments before. As the light returned, Jayce caught the flash of several pinpricks of light, glinting gold in the dark of the wood, like hungry stars waiting to strike.


“Twenty-one of them,” Runty continued, taking a step forward. “They must have been watching us as we approached.” At this, Runty took another step forward, and yelled out.


“Hey! We know you’re there! Come out so we can talk!” Runty bellowed into the darkness. If the situation wasn’t so tense, Jayce would have slapped him for such a brash action. If he didn’t, Larx definitely would have.


But nothing but the whisper of the breeze responded to the young man’s proclamation. Smiling at this, Runty took another step closer.


“Hey you big dummies! The seven of you don’t scare us! Heck, I bet I could beat you all alone!” Runty raised his blade and dropped it. It clattered against the ground with a metallic clink. “With only my bare hands! Unless you’re too cowardly to fight someone as little as I!”


Jayce’s ears perked as a new sound filled the air. From the darkness, forms began shifting in the shadows. A moment later, seven figures stepped forward, several feet apart in a fan shape, walking in sync with each other.


The forms left the shade of the surrounding woods and stone, and stepped into the moonlight. Their three eyes, golden and angular, appeared like a golden wreath around their foreheads. Where hair would have adorned their heads, sharp curling spikes jutted out, twisting in all directions. Their bodies twitched as they crept forward, two oversized arms shifting their weight forward. The ends of these arms ended in humanoid hands, save for one missing finger and sharp spikes running from the dorsal aspect of the hand to their broad shoulders. Their chests, naked and smooth, glowed dully in the moonlight.


Jayce and Larx readied their weapons, as they prepared to attack. Runty raised a palm toward them, and shook his head. Jayce knew what Runty was planning, but still did not like this strategy.


“I swear,” Jayce whispered under his breath, though he knew Runty could hear him. “Your curiosity will be the death of us one day.”


Runty smirked at this and shifted his shoulders, a motion Jayce understood to be a shrug. “It won’t be today.”


Runty shifted himself back to face the oncoming creatures, who continued to shift awkwardly toward them. When they were several feet away, they stopped their march, and stared down at their mocking audience.


“Thank you for meeting with me!” Runty smiled toward the demons, spread in front of the three to block the main path, and thus their main form of escape. “Before we kill you, please let me know who you are! I’m curious about your kind, and to set a trap like this, you must be smart enough to speak.”


The demons stood frozen in the moonlight, twenty-one gold dots pointed right at Runty. After some time, the one directly in front of Runty stretched upward, its curved spine straightening as it appeared to grow almost a foot taller. In the light, a thin black curve stretched across the lower half of its blank face. With a sickening smack, the curve parted to reveal a wide mouth. Within this mouth, small jagged triangles stood in single file, several rows deep. The demon tilted its head at Runty, mouth widening into what could be a smile, and spoke.

———— Chapter 10 –———

“Welcome to our little piece of paradise”, the creature hissed, emphasizing the s’ in its speech, as if letting out whispering breaths as it spoke. Its arms raised toward the three in salutation, with the spikes lining its arm flexing in response. “We normally would greet you in the daylight, when our forms are more…presentable. But alas,” the creature’s mouth spread longer, as if enjoying its current thought, “it seems you approached us earlier than anticipated.”


Jayce glanced around as the creature spoke, keeping watch over the group’s positioning, and the six other creatures, unmoving but spread apart. He noticed Larx’s form shake, which he figured was out of fear. Watching her closer, he saw her breathing had slowed, as she focused on the creatures. No, Jayce thought to himself. Not fear, but anticipation.


“We figured you would be meeting us tonight if we didn’t approach!” Runty said, pointing toward the path they had come from, through the line of creatures. “Why would a few hours make a difference?”


At this, the creature raised a hand in front of its face. “Oh, because then we could have met not as enemies,” the creature’s fingers extended, and grasped the front of its head, covering its blank features. With a muffled flash of white, smoke escaped from the outstretched fingers, seeming to originate from the creature’s palm. Releasing its head and lowering the arm, the group stared at the face of the creature; a smiling woman, no older than thirty, stared at them. Her eyes, filled with black irises, glinted in the moonlight, as her small mouth remained in a cruel grin. “And we could have met as friends. Or, rather, friends until we changed back in the moonlight.”


A second later, the youthful face began to blister and bubble, as the moonlight shone down on the creature. Then the smell of burning flesh filled the air, as the facade melted against the demon’s head, revealing the blank monstrosity that initially greeted them.


“A pity. We knew the flowers would lead you to us, and we had such a lovely story to keep you here for the night,” the creature continued. At this, the others creatures suddenly chimed in, their whispering rasps sending a shiver down Jayce’s spine as they spoke;


“Oh please protect us.”


“Stay the night, we can’t face them alone!”


“We have a feast in store! Please!”


After the other creatures spoke, the first demon continued. “But you’re here now. And we are in need of a snack.” The creature turned toward each of them, evaluating them with its golden eyes. It raised its arm again to point at Larx. “Look how this one quivers in fright. Her fear will make for an excellent flower!”


At this, Larx stepped forward, battle-ax lowered as if ready to strike. This made the creature’s smile grow, as it let out a rumbling, guttural creak, as if laughing at this show of defiance.


Runty raised a hand back toward Larx, as if to tell her to not proceed. Eyes still trained on the creature, Runty spoke.


“So it was you who planted the bodies?” Runty asked, voice calm as he spoke. As if in response to his question, a breeze blew through the opening, as the chatterlillies swayed and released their cries of lost souls. “Chatterlillies grow on their own where a soul was lost, so you must have set this up.” Another guttural sound echoed over the soft cries from the plants.


“Yes, these flowers help us lure others to our paradise,” the creature purred, thinking of previous hunts. “It shows the weakness of humans. They fall so easily, and then a pathetic plant marks their pitiful words. A sign of utter weakness.” Another laugh gurgled from it, as the others joined in.


At this, Larx sprang forward in a dash, battle-ax raised behind her. As the demon finished its laugh, Larx appeared in front of the demon, battle-ax raised and glinting in the moonlight. As she brought the weapon down into the neck of the demon, her golden hair swirled wildly, and Jayce could feel the tinge of magic in the air from the blow. With a squelch, the blade sunk into the neck, spurts of orange ooze leaking around the ax.


With a single motion, Larx planted a foot in the ground, and twisted the ax in her hands. Jayce watched as vines sprouted below her, twisting around her foot as muscles strained in her upper body. In what seemed like a fluid motion, she spun the blade free of the demon, as the ax sheared clean through the creature’s neck. As the head of the demon, still twisted in a cruel smile as its eyes spun wildly around, fell to the ground, Larx returned her ax to a battle stance, prepared to strike once more.


“Those humans,” she yelled, as she raised the weapon above her head, “were not weak! The flowers don’t grow from the weak!” she brought the ax down into the severed skull, splitting it down the center, the central golden eye splitting in two. “That’s why they’ll never grow for you!”


At this, Jayce and Runty raised their own weapons, preparing for the inevitable retaliation. The gurgling sounds long gone, the remaining six demons stared at the three, massive arms raised and spines flexing. Jayce watched as drops of something silently splashed around the demons. In the pale light of Clemmedeus, he could see the source of this liquid - the spines themselves were dripping slowly, as if producing tears for their lost comrade.


No, Jayce thought. Not tears. Venom.


“Watch for the spines!” Jayce called to his friends. “They appear to be poisonous!”


Runty and Larx nodded, and a moment of stillness passed through the groups. Above, a drifting cloud blocked out the light for the area. As the cloud passed ideally overhead and light returned to the clearing, the combatants engaged.


The demons were the first to move, each raising their massive arms in front of their chests, the spined exteriors protruding toward the group like a spiked shield. Jayce watched as they prepared their defenses and charged toward the three of them. A simple offense, thought Jayce, readying Justice as he channeled energy to the blade.


In an instant, Jayce had vanished. The space around him, once a battlefield with six charging demons with poison-drenched battering shields, now a swirling void of shadows and light. Jayce closed his eyes, and focused on his last vision of the world; the six charging demons, heads lowered with the massive arms. Jayce focused his thoughts, choosing a spot just above the left most demon. With the destination selected, Jayce opened his eyes.


In the blink of one of its golden eyes, Jayce reappeared in the spot he had been focusing on, Justice raised to strike. In a swing of his blade, he slashed toward the demons exposed neck. The blade sunk into the flesh, but the demon proved to be too sturdy to succumb to such a shallow wound. It stopped its charge, turning itself to face Jayce, as its massive arm swung heavily toward the warrior. Jayce turned in the air, using Karma to slow the incoming arm. As the dark blade pressed into the armored muscle, Jayce felt the force reverberate up the blade and through his body. Focusing on Runty, Jayce removed his blades from the creature’s form, and vanished again into the night air.


The creature turned back to the group as Jayce emerged behind Runty, breathing heavily from the movements. Jayce watched as the remaining five also stopped their advance, eyeing their prey, as if not expecting any to put up such a fight.


“They’re strong,” Jayce breathed, “and faster than they look. Larx,” he looked up at her, as she kept her battle-ax raised, the demons wary of charging her after her recent decapitation of their leader. Her eye flickered to Jayce, indicating she was listening. “Your last blow had more than enough force to shear the beast’s head off. What we need is that force for each of them.”


Larx’s eyes narrowed, never leaving the creature’s sight. “It’s no good. I can achieve that with my battle-ax, but I either need it to be a single target,” she smiled grimly at this. “Or another surprise attack.”


Before Jayce could respond, two of the demons broke the silence with a charge, arms again raised in a defense wall of their torso, spikes dripping with venom. The two smashed through the space the three were standing, only to meet open air as all three separated, Runty and Jayce jumping to the right, Larx landing to the left. As they landed, the other four demons divided, spreading out to meet the separated warriors.


Larx dealt the next blow in the conflict, battle-ax swinging as it chipped and smashed spikes and the armored flesh of her pursuing demons. The clang of golden steel rang through the air as the circling three demons growled in frustration. Jayce watched as Larx managed to clear a circle around her, warding the demons off with her swings. But he could also see the sweat forming on her face. It was only a matter of time before they overwhelmed her.


Meanwhile, Jayce and Runty flashed around their three opposing demons, their nine eyes spinning as the two used swift motions to disorient them. Yet each swing of their blades left merely shallow cuts, or bounced off of the armored arms that swung toward them.


“Jayce! I have an idea!” Runty yelled out, looking over to Larx to signal the two needed to get to her. Before Jayce could answer, Runty reached behind him and pulled out two orbs. Two soft clicks sounded in the chaos, and soon billows of black smoke descended from Runty, coating the three demons and Jayce in a hazy smokescreen. Jayce leapt from the smoke, jumping off of a demon and toward Larx’s location.


The distraction halted the demons attacks on Larx, who stood panting in her circle, glaring at the three with fire blazing in her eyes. As Jayce and Runty flashed to her sides, Jayce noticed roots climbing up her feet, planting her legs to the spot she stood in. She was anchoring herself, to conserve energy to her swings, Jayce concluded.


“Larx,” Jayce said, raising his weapons into a strike position. The creatures noticed their arrival, and adjusted their formation to meet them. Behind them, the smoke began to clear, revealing three shimmering forms blindly smashing around, golden glints from their eyes piercing through the now fading veil.


Larx tilted her head toward him, sweat now more prevalent on her face. “We either need to separate them, or finish this fast.”


As the smokescreen fully vanished, the three separated demons shifted their sight toward the three before the group, and charged. Soon the six would be on the three of them again, and now they knew their tricks.


Well, thought Jayce, some of them, anyway.


As if reading his mind, Runty, blade raised toward the oncoming demons, smiled. “I think it’s time for the Runty Reaper.”


Jayce nodded at this, and shifted his eyes upward. Catching the shine of a distant moon, he smiled. “Ok Larx. When I give the signal, aim for the moon, Som. And give it everything you’ve got.”


Larx nodded, and Runty beamed in anticipation. At this, the group tensed, as the six demons again stared them down, only several yards from them. The shift in the air drifted their malodorous breath into Jayce’s nostrils, as he prepared for the plan. With a twist of Justice, a glint of metal shone in the moonlight, and signaled the start of their swift victory.


As soon as the light gleamed from Justice, Runty leapt into the air above the two groups. Golden eyes raised to follow the man, as he reached ten feet above their heads. With a quick flick of his wrist, he threw another two smoke bombs at their feet, enveloping Jayce and Larx, and spreading to cloud the demon’s line of sight. This did not send the demons into a frenzy like before, as the six now stood on guard, watching the smoke as the man descended and was soon hidden by the gray cloak.


Once Runty disappeared into the smoke, Jayce sprinted ahead and leapt up as well, using the chest of the demon in front of him to bound off of the creature, and arch himself into the air above and behind them. In his hand, Justice glowed white as it arched through the air, as if cutting the very piece of the sky it touched. In its wake, the white scattered, leaving a mist present against the backdrop of night.


The creature reacted to this with a gurgle, eyes adjusting and following the almost floating Jayce, as he spun himself back toward the group below. Justice, no longer glowing, descended toward the creature’s head, as it raised an arm to block its path. With this, Jayce continued his downward course, piercing the blade into the arm, and pushed himself off of the creature, landing behind the group. With a spurt of orange popping from the wound, the creature gurgled in annoyance, and attempted to grab at Jayce. But as the hand clenched around the landed man, Jayce vanished from the area.


The demon raised its hand back to examine the damage, revealing an open palm free of any viscera. Confused, it returned its gaze to the smokescreen, as one of its eyes circled the area. After another moment, the wandering eye focused on a point in line with the demons, and the creature turned to face it.


Jayce reappeared, sweat sparkling in his hair, standing before the line of demons. As each head turned slightly to keep him in sight, Jayce pulled out Karma from its sheath, black aura like oil dripping from around its edges. With a quick swipe, Jayce slashed in the air, causing a ripple to shutter the open space beside him. As the ripple settled, a black mist filled the spot it left, similar to the white twin hanging above them all.


“NOW!” Jayce yelled, exhaustion echoed in his voice. Despite years of training, the amount of teleporting he had done this evening had drained his soul of much of its energy.


At this proclamation, the demons focused their eyes on Jayce. Confusion seemed to spark in the eighteen eyes that watched the man, standing with one sword drawn, as he made no attempt to move against them. Then, as eyes began to drift back to the retreating smokescreen, understanding dawned on the creature’s faces.


The smoke, mostly gone now, revealed the two remaining warriors that fell for the demon’s trap; Larx, body braced by more vines, her blonde hair out wildly to her sides as her face was ablaze with anticipation. In her arms, muscles tensed for action, lay her mighty battle-ax, gold reflecting the retreating white smoke like a drifting cloud. And at the end of the weapon, kneeling on its head with a crazed smile on his face, was Runty. His eyes shine with excitement under the hood of his cloak, raised to appear like an executioner before the gallows, ready to make his final judgment. One hand gripped the end of the ax, while the other grasped a silver weapon, appearing like a mix of a short sword, and a sickle.


“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” With a yell, Larx shifted her weight, twisting her upper body as her hands gripped the handle of her ax. The vines buckled as her force rippled throughout her body, focusing on the twist in her swing. With a swing that seemed to stir the wind around them back into action, she arched the battle-ax around her stationary body. And at the peak of this arch, her passenger, his form faintly wavering with an aura of power, as he channeled energy into himself, pressed off of the top of the moving ax and shot forward into the sky.


The demons, watching the woman begin to swing and scream, braced for a frontal attack, lining their arms up against their fronts, spikes jutting toward Larx and Runty. When the swing reached its climax, the bodies of the demons tensed, and hundreds of popping sounds vibrated the air, as the spikes from their arms rocketed toward Larx and Runty, in an attempt to stop their sudden action.


What happened next, Jayce considered later, as he recalled the events of that night, appeared to happen both instantaneously, while almost in slow motion.


Larx, braced by her vines and unable to dodge the onslaught of hundreds of spikes fired at her, brought her ax from its swing and placed it in front of her, using the ax head to shield her face and chest. Her body leaned forward against the ax, adrenaline pulsing through her worn arms.


Jayce, bringing all of his power into another blink, teleported in front of Larx, the zooming missiles now moving slowly as his reflexes took over. Standing before the spikes, both Karma and Justice in hand, Jayce slashed at the air, their strikes painting the space between the demons and himself with a flurry of white and black. On a normal day, no spike would have been left flying through the air. But after three blinks, the previous day’s rescue, and no sleep between, Jayce’s focus was on the ones directly flying toward himself, and the companion behind him. As wayward ones passed by Jayce, he continued his focus and slashing, becoming a wall of magical fury.


Runty, weapon grasped in his hand and at the ready, flew like a silent Blight, his cowl covering the mix of enjoyment and determination spread across his face. Eyes focused on the distant glint of the moon Som, he moved into the night sky at tremendous speeds, aided by the magic he forced into his legs at the moment of his jump. Carried by inertia, Runty passed through his real target; the glittering white mist, left behind by Justice’s slash. In an instant, his form passed through its partners black mist, no longer above the demons, but to their side. And in line with their distracted, unprotected heads.


What felt like a lifetime was over within seconds. What began with Jayce and Larx’s yells was followed by a collection of soft pops, and came to an end in silence, as six heads, golden eyes spinning in confusion, lay resting on the dusty ground, their bodies propped in place by their naked, scarred arms. In front of these headless forms, like grotesque statues of the mad, stood Jayce, panting, arms relaxed at this side with his blades glowing hot. Behind him, Larx braced herself against her ax, a trickle of blood coming down from a wound on her leg, grazed by a stray spike. Around them, hundreds of spikes lay, some embedded into the ground and others sliced in half, light smoke wishing into the air.


And across from the bodies of the demons stood Runty, blade transfigured back into a short sword and splattered with orange blood, stretching his back toward the sky as he turned around. In the glow of the moon, his face was shadowed by his hood, making the man appear more like a demon than the felled monsters across from him. He lowered his hood; his bright smile grinning happily toward Larx and Jayce.


“Now that’s the best Runty Reaper we’ve done in a while!” He beamed, sheathing his blade. Looking over the rest of his party, his smile grew larger. “Now, I think it’s time to eat!”

Written by Christopher Rentko

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