The sounds of life rose from behind the wooden wall surrounding the small village of Periah. Dawn was some time past, and the villagers went about their daily lives as they always did, come poor weather, raids, and what ever else might come their way. Merchants set their stalls, cooks tended to their fires and prepared to feed their customers, and children helped with their chores before running off to have their fun. A few wagons trundled up the road, some ways off yet, but undoubtedly intending to bring business. For a small outpost town, life was as good as it got, and they had not suffered greatly in some time.
Sunlight glared onto the nearby cliff face and reflected into the windows of the inn, shedding light on any patron still asleep at this hour. More specifically, right into the face of a fairly young beastgirl, taking the opportunity for some extra sleep before heading into the wilder areas again. Her face scrunched against the light, trying to deny its existence, but eventually her eyes opened and she sat up, hand covering a yawn. "Oh, go away, you bright thing," she muttered, mocking grumpiness as she tossed back the sheets and turned to sit at the edge of the bed. She took a minute just sitting there, thinking and planning while her mind and body finished rousing.
<I should be near home within a month or so,> she thought, running a hand through her hair. <It'll be good to see Mom and Dad again, it's been a while. Though Mom will probably give me some flack about never being around, even though she knows being a Ranger keeps me busy. Ah well.> She stood, stretching her lithe form and groaning a bit before grabbing for her clothes and gathering her gear.
Tossing a wave and a smile to the innkeep and his wife, she whistled her way through the streets, looking at the different food stalls and debating her morning repast. The town was bustling to her eyes, and everyone seemed in good spirits until she bumped into someone just standing in the middle of the road, head cocked upwards. "Ouf!" she exhaled, hearing the clink of mail on the man in front of her. "What are ya standing on the road for? People are busy along here," she half-demanded, mood somewhat soured.
"Hmm? Sorry." The man's reply was terse and his tone completely unapologetic. He turned to look briefly at her, then started walking swiftly in the direction she came from.
"Sure you are," she muttered, rubbing her nose. Running into him felt like walking into a wall. She looked briefly where he had been, wondering what had been so transfixing, and couldn't see a thing beyond scant clouds. How weird, she mused, I wonder why he looked so grim.
Her mood swiftly rose again, though, as she spied a stall selling rolled balls of dough filled with sausage and fried in the same's oils. Smiling and ordering two, she grabbed the stick stuck through them and handed off a couple of coins to pay for them. They smelled lightly seasoned with herbs, and drool started to form in her mouth as she took a big bite, humming in approval as she consumed them. The first disappeared in no time, and she just started on the second when a shadow passed overhead.
Blinking and craning her neck upwards, she didn't see a single cloud dense enough or small enough to account for it, and her ears twitched as the sound of leathery wings flapping came to her. Her smile disappeared and she gazed about, looking for the source. Not moments later it came into view, and she gasped as a large wyvern flew over the town, the edges of its mouth glowing with flame as it spat a ball of fire. Fortunately it landed in an empty street, but small licks of flame hit a nearby roof, which began to crackle and flare up. "WYVERN!" she shouted in warning to the people, as other cries of fire and fear filled the air. The small town guard was already rushing to their posts and vendors were closing up, getting ready to help fight the fires.
Dropping her second, half-eaten ball of food, she ran for the tallest nearby building and ran through it, scrambling up to the roof to get a better view. She readied her bow, feet on either side of the roof's arch, and caught sight of the beast. It was sweeping around the other side of town, raining fireballs and detritus it grabbed with its talons among the defenders, and their arrows seemed to leave it completely unfazed. Stifling a curse, she took a running leap from this roof onto the next, striving to come into range of the beast. It flashed overhead again as she was running and she loosed an arrow at it on the fly, watching it strike and barely sink into its leathery skin.
It was curving around underneath the short cliff overlooking the village when she halted to draw her bow back, sighting down the length of the arrow. <That thing's hide is tough. I've got to aim carefully.> She took a deep breath and led the target, preparing to let fly. A movement on the ridge made her pause, and she gasped as she saw a figure dashing along it, leading the beast. <What!> she thought, taken completely off guard. "What are-" she started, instinct trying to stop the figure from taking a fool course of action and completely forgetting there was no way they would hear her. Her eyes widened as she saw them leap off the edge of the cliff, angling into the fall and landing square onto the wyvern's back.
The beast plunged a bit as the weight hit and keened angrily, taken by surprise and irritated at the sudden intrusion on its back. Its head whipped about, maw snapping as it tried to remove the pest. She couldn't see them clearly as the creature swerved, arcing back out from the town towards the small lake sitting right next to it. Leaping from the roof, she raced through the streets, following it to try and make sure the beast met its end. She heard cries of pain from the creature as she burst into view of it, and she saw steel flash on its back as the figure plunged a sword right between its wings. With a death screech, it fell towards the water, strength fading as its life bled out of it. The figure rode it down into the lake where it landed with a splash in the shallows near the shore.
It was still twitching feebly when she got close, arrow still ready in case it still had fight in it. She needn't have worried - she could see the wounds inflicted on it, and knew they were fatal, never mind the fall. Her arms relaxed, and she saw the figure from its back stumble forward onto their knees, dazed. Walking over to it, she opened her mouth to berate their foolish recklessness when she recognized the figure as the one she ran into. "You again-!" she said, surprised.
"Hmm? Oh, you." He pushed off the ground and his knees, a bit unsteady still. "How's the damage to the village?"
"Damage to the village? Wh-I think it's fine, there wasn't too much since it died so fast," she said, caught a bit off-guard by the question. Some of the town guard were closing, intending on doing the same as she - making sure the beast was dead. "But what the hell was that? You jumped from a CLIFF onto that thing, and you rode it down as it CRASHED into the GROUND. What kind of MADMAN are you?!" she demanded, angry at the stupid, in her eye, actions. "Do you not realize how easy it would have been for you to die?!"
The man shrugged, more or less recovered from the landing. "I was lucky enough to notice it coming from far enough off to set up for it. I figured it would swing near the cliff at some point - I just had to be ready for it." He paused and pulled a sharp, runed knife, turning back to the beast and starting to dig into the chest, searching. "It helped minimize damage to the village and ended the threat quickly. Worked great."
"Did you not stop to think that maybe, just maybe, leaping onto a flying, hostile creature from on high was a bad idea? That maybe there were people better suited for fighting it, like archers? Who wouldn't be risking FALLING TO DEATH while fighting it?" Her anger was rising a bit at the callous nature of this fool's responses. "What, do you just have a death wish?"
"I don't fear death, if that's what you're asking." He had both hands in the creature and leaned back, grunting before his next reply. "If I had died, it would have been practically nothing to this village. I don't live here, I don't know anyone here." He promptly stepped back, hands covered in blood but holding his trophy high. "Very good quality Core. This creature was no juvenile."
Fuming, her next reply was cut short by a guard sergeant as he and two others came up to them. "That was an impressive leap, there," he said, looking at the man. "This thing's skin was tough enough that it probably could have caused some real damage before it was brought down. The fires were a bit of trouble, but they're almost under control already. On behalf of the town, I'd like to thank you. And you as well, miss," he added, nodding to the girl.
"You're welcome," the man said, cleaning the Core off in the water before putting it in his pack. "I imagine your merchants don't have the resources for me to trade off this Core?"
"Ahh, sadly no," the sergeant answered, somewhat abashed. "You'd have to go to a larger town for that."
"It's not a problem. I was headed further into the territory soon enough anyway. Have a good day, sergeant," the man said, sketching a salute to him.
The girl watched the guards walk back towards town and turned back to the man, arms crossed. "Do you regularly perform such...foolish acts of daring?" she demanded of him, calmed by the interlude but still upset.
"Not actively. But if it's expedient, I'll do it. Like this time." He started to walk towards the road, considering the discussion closed.
"You ARE a maniac, aren't you?" she asked, following after. It looked like he was headed east, towards Erithad. Right near her family's home. <Well, I guess this works, even if it's sooner than I meant to head inward. Company's always nice on the road...right?>
"Not a maniac, no. But I admit, I don't really care. If it looks like the most effective idea, I do it. I don't really have any reason to be overly cautious about it." If he was surprised or irritated at her following him, he didn't show it.
"How have you survived like this?" The question was only muttered, and rhetorical, but he still answered.
"Day to day. I don't have anything to worry about, really." His expression grew mournful, briefly, before flashing back into calmness.
"What do you mean?"
"It's not a story for the road."
"Fine, I guess, though now I'm curious."
"Ask me again around the fire when we stop for the night. You ARE going to Erithad too, right?" he asked, turning to her and actually showing some minor interest in conversation.
The change in attitude surprised her again, making her mentally berate herself briefly for becoming accustomed to the cold norm.
"Yes, actually. My family lives in the area."
"Oh. Okay, then." He returned his attention to the road, leaving her to her own musings for most of the day.
The sounds of day faded as night fell, replaced by the noise of cicadas and the occasional, distant howl. The girl was sure the man intended to walk through the night, as he showed no signs of stopping until he did so. She nearly ran into him out of surprise, and she stifled a curse before speaking. "Give a girl some warning, would you?"
"Sorry," her traveling companion said, tone clearly unapologetic again. "This is a good spot to stop for the night. You're getting tired, aren't you?" He didn't bother waiting for a response, walking over to a small clearing bordering the road and gathering wood for a fire.
"Well...yes, of course I am. We've been walking all day." She stepped over to a tree, taking off her pack and helping him gather fuel. "Are you saying you're not?"
"Not really," he said, dumping a load of small logs and pulling out a piece off flint. Sparks flew as he clashed it against the hilt of his sword, catching on the dry tinder. It smoldered a bit before flaring up, quickly turning into a healthy fire under his attention. Seeing it strong and steady, he pulled a small pot from his own pack, setting it up along with a brace to hold it over the fire. "Would you see about getting some water? There's a stream a bit that way." He pointed away from the road, looking at her with a fairly indifferent expression.
"Sure," she said, still put off by his demeanor. Her brows furrowed as she grabbed a small pot of her own to carry it with, mind working furiously to try and understand this guy. Nothing came to her as she filled the pot and returned, filling the one by the fire with the water. "So..." she started, trying to think of something to say. He had pulled a bag out of his pack and it was distracting her.
"You mentioned something about a story for the fire earlier today...?"
"Yes, I did. You want to hear it, I imagine?"
<Why else would I be asking?> she asked herself, barely avoiding rolling her eyes. "I would, yes."
"There isn't much to it," he said, stirring the pot as he added different herbs and strips of dried meat to it. "I'm from a small village myself, but further in the territory than Periah. We've always been small because we're a bit isolated - in the Girul mountains. My...clan, if you will, has a history of service in the king's personal guard, and that village is where we all are born and raised."
"Hold it, that sounds kinda familiar. Are you saying that YOU'RE one of the..."
"Yes, I'm a Glaed. Jalyck. The name's a misspelling of glade, as in a forest clearing. Our ancestor wasn't the brightest, but he was loyal and good-hearted."
"Okay...so what are you doing way out here at the western border?" she asked, confused. The clan rarely left their village except for service.
"Well, that's the part about me not having anything to worry about," he said, eyes somber. "Except for myself, the whole clan is dead. Killed in an attack."
"What kind of raid could take on the whole Glaed village?" She covered her mouth, appalled.
"Not your average bandits, that's for certain." His eyes and tone turned bitter and anguished. "We don't know who it was, but they were professionals. Almost like military elites. But, whoever they were, they came in the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep. They didn't spare anyone they found, and burned everything. The only reason anyone survived at all was my father. He woke, alert as ever, and was able to organize a small group to fight them. Even taken by surprise and unarmored, they took a fierce toll on their opponents. I'd have died with them, but he instructed me to ride to the capital and report the disaster to the king."
"So you weren't even able to fight when..."
"Yes. I ran, ordered or no, and lived instead of fighting with my family." His mouth was a hard line as he ladled some stew into bowls, passing one to her with a spoon.
"I'm sorry. I had no idea..."
"Sorry for what? You're not responsible for what happened or for how I feel." Jalyck ate a bite of stew before going on. "So that's why I don't really care what happens to me. I have nothing left. I am, as far as I am aware, the last of my clan, and until I find the bastards who organized that assault, I have nothing else. Which is why I was so far out. I'm traveling as a mercenary, looking for leads. Or even just some kind of solace."
"But that's so..." Her eyes focused on her food, her appetite momentarily gone.
"Self-destructing?" he finished for her, noting a small nod on her part. "I suppose so. But I have no reason not to be so. My clan is destroyed, and there is no way to bring it back. So ending the ones who ended us will suffice for me. So then, I believe it's your turn to share information. What are you doing so close to the borders?" he asked, changing subject.
"I'm a ranger. Karyn Fyndar," she said, a bit subdued from her norm after hearing her companion's tale. "I just...patrol the woodlands, mostly around the border, and watch out for any threat to the territory or the people in it. If I can't take care of it myself, I alert people who can. Nothing so special as what your clan does."
"It's an important duty," he said, voice deadly serious. "It's just as important in its own way as what we used to do. Moreso, because you'll come across things we would normally never see. Be proud of what you do, and be proud of the good it does." His spoon clattered into his empty bowl as he set it down, tossing another log onto the fire. "Well, I suppose that's enough for tonight, then," he said, taking her now empty bowl as well. "I'll watch the area. You go ahead asleep for now."
"I have something for that," she said, brightening a bit and reaching into a belt pouch to withdraw a small tablet with runes etched on it. Closing her eyes and chanting, the object began to glow. "Spirits of the forest, lend me your senses this night, that we may rest our weary selves secure in your watchfulness. Warn of danger, o kind spirits, hear my plea." A faint breeze swirled about her as she invoked the magic within the stone tablet, scarcely larger than a deck of cards, rippling her hair before dying down. The glow continued to fade after she finished, leaving the stone looking much as before.
"A Wardstone?" Jalyck asked, a bit surprised.
"Yes, a gift from my father. He came across it in his youth, as a hunter. It will warn us, or at least me, of any threat approaching within a hundred feet without alerting the threat."
"Very nice. In that case, good night," he said, rolling out a blanket after preparing the fire. He wrapped himself in it and was soon, by any indication, fast asleep.
Karyn, on the other hand, lay awake for some time after getting into her own blanket. She kept going over the day in her head, embarrassed and a bit ashamed at herself for thinking so little of him at first. <He must think I'm a fool,> she berated herself. <Who am I to tell a Glaed how to fight? I can't believe what an idiot I was. Dad always told me not to judge so harshly on first impressions. He has every right to be the way he is.>
Her thoughts followed that train until she finally drifted off.
* * *
"Hmm, how interesting." A husky soprano voice drifted through the dark void of sleep into Karyn's mind. She couldn't for the life of her make out who was saying it, but the voice filled her with dread. Formless denizens of the dark danced before her, and she clutched her knees to her chest against the cold. They all seemed to be paying homage to one, larger than the others, whose only detail was long white hair...
Clutching the bedroll to her chest and gasping, Karyn shot upright. Her eyes were slow to focus and her dream - no, nightmare was more appropriate - still hung before her, until the crackling of firewood finally brought her back to the world.
"You look terrible. Have a rough night?"
She turned at the voice and remembered where she was. Her traveling companion was sitting on a rock by the fire, heating the leftover stew from the night before. Running a hand through her hair, Karyn felt the clamminess of cold sweat on her. She took brief inventory of her person and started cleaning her disheveled appearance as best she could. "Y-yes. I had some kind of nightmare, horrible."
"A nightmare? Do you remember it?"
"No, nothing definite, just long, white hair...and a woman's voice that gave me chills. Karyn hugged the blanket about her for a moment, shivering as she remembered it.
Jalyck sat and watched her without a word at first. "Really shaken, huh?" he asked, offering her some of the food. She accepted it with a nod. Sure that she was alright, he mentally nodded and looked around. "Does the wood seem...different to you this morning?" He waved an arm, gesturing at the quiet treeline.
Swallowing a bite and feeling much better, Karyn looked about herself, adding her superior hearing to their search. She frowned when she didn't hear so much as a single insect, scarcely even a breeze. Looking at the grass around them, her ears perked in alarm. "The grass...look at it!"
Eyes going right to the source of her worry, the mercenary narrowed his gaze. "Inside the Wardstone's circle...it's greener." In a perfect circle about the two, the grass was indeed different. Inside the circle it was clearly more alive and healthy, if by only a small difference in shade. Not only that, but the grass outside seemed to be angled all in one direction, as though in a breeze, despite there being none.
"That's odd," she observed, finishing her food quickly and gathering up their camp. When she picked up the Wardstone she paused again and stood blinking for a brief moment. "Did you feel that?" she finally asked. "It's like the plants wanted to cry and were gagged."
"I know what you mean." Jalyck hefted his light pack with his gear and checked his scabbard, making sure he could draw his sword easily. "It's honestly creeping me out a bit." His expression was still as impassive as ever, though Karyn could see the concern in his eyes.
"No, I mean really. I could hear it."
"I thought you were a ranger, not an elementalist," he said, eyes going to her, curious now.
"I AM a ranger. But every Hyarl'narin - that's the proper name for us cat beastmen - is born with an affinity for one element. I never pursued magic studies, but I've got an affinity with Nature. I can sort of hear what it's telling me, though that's the limit of what I can do. But here...outside the Wardstone's circle...it's like someone's covering my ears. It feels like it's dying." She gestured about her, adding emphasis to her words.
"Oh. That's...bad, isn't it?"
"Very. If the plants in this area die, so will all the animals. I think it's already too late for the smaller ones. Something's drawing on their life energy, that has to be it."
"So if we follow where the grass is pointing, we'll find the source?" Jalyck, a complete novice at anything and everything magical, decided to make a guess and started moving where the grass indicated.
"Most likely, yes," Karyn said, subdued as she followed him. She strung her bow and readied an arrow, unsure of what could cause this situation.
The two of them walked on, observing the effects on their surroundings gradually worsen the further they went. Dead and decaying vegetation lined their way, looking as though it was being dried out instead of rotting. The trees themselves were turning black, leaves gone entirely and mighty trunks shriveled. Their branches all leaned in the same direction, limbs being pulled towards something still further ahead. The stalks of plants crunched into dust beneath their boots as they continued into this area of death.
The treeline ended with sudden abruptness, leading down into a large, shallow depression. Smooth slopes descended only a couple of meters before flattening back out, rising in the middle to support a strange stone pillar. Crimson red symbols glowed on the face, and both of the travelers felt the breath in their lungs grow hot and stale from its wicked power.
So taken in by the sight were they that it was a moment before they noticed the figure before the stone, dragging flawlessly manicured fingers gently along an edge. Deep blue shoulder pads and hip guards covered dark brown skin, standing out against shocking white hair in a loose tail, flowing everywhere from the knees up.
The figure turned its body towards them and gazed upon the stone a moment longer, letting out a wistful sigh before returning the hand to its owner's hip. A bare stomach and thighs stood out from scant quantities of cloth. The figure placed a hand over her breasts as though faint and ready to swoon. "Soon enough, I suppose," she said to no one in a voice that Karyn recognized from her nightmare.
"Wh...that hair..." she started to mutter, shocked, as Jalyck shouted out.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, his voice accompanied by the ringing of steel as his sword left its scabbard. He prepared to charge down the slope and cut her down for this vile witchcraft.
The woman in the depression turned a casual eye on them, utterly unconcerned. "More bystanders. It's getting SO difficult to enjoy one's work, and I have no need of more sacrifices." She cast a glance at a small heap of corpses, human, tossed aside and seemingly drained of blood. One clearly had its chest torn open and their heart removed.
"What have you done here?!" Jalyck shouted, outraged at her callous attitude, and charged down the slope. Behind him, Karyn knocked an arrow and let fly. The mercenary could hear it buzz overhead as it flew straight and true - and hit nothing. Jalyck slid to a stop and looked about, wary, for his target. She had vanished right as the arrow was about to hit her.
"I'll play with you mortals another day, perhaps. I have more business to attend to," the woman's voice taunted, amused. A faint giggle echoed about the clearing, fading rapidly.
Karyn trotted up to Jalyck as he sheathed his sword and stood in front of the stone, looking at it with her face pale. "Jalyck, we should leave. Now. This stone...it's EVIL. I can feel it. It's what's killing the nature around here, it's feeding off it. It's feeding off of us, too. I think I'm going to be sick. Let's go, please," she begged, turning to him. Her companion nodded his assent, feeling the power behind the stone even without having any affinity for magic.
They practically ran back out of the clearing, headed for the road. Neither of them needed to say anything - they both knew that they had to warn the capital of this.
* * *
"Wherever have you been, my wife?" A self-satisfied tone emerged from the figure reclining on a couch, swirling a crimson-filled glass. To look upon the male figure would have been difficult - his shape seemed to shift and squirm, a being of shadow and fire rather than solid mass. Nonetheless, the red liquid disappeared into a mouth that formed from the apparent nothing.
The woman with white hair smirked back at him, eyes gleaming. "You know quite well what I'm doing, my love," she crooned, leaning over him. Her lips disappeared into the swirling dark as they, presumably, kissed. "I'm going to go finish shortly. A short rest felt in order, and I just happen to find myself desiring a bit of time with you, first."
"Lilium, Lilium... despite being the mother of all demons, you let yourself get so distracted," the figure teased, pulling the woman down and onto his lap. A hand stroked a thigh, caressing her.
"Mmm, you're always such a tease, Royce," she joked back, leaning into him. She was used to his games, and new how to play them to get what she wanted.
The form of a man dropped his glass on the carpet without notice or care, staining it blood red.
* * *
Jalyck and Karyn hurried for several days, stopping only once it was too dark to continue and starting again as soon as dawn broke. They witnessed two more stones, both seeming to have been there for some time. Each seemed to have an even larger area of effect than the previous. Finally, they arrived at the gates of the capital. Both moved through the crowded streets with haste towards the castle, gaining entry to the building with ease. Intending to head straight to the throne room, they were stopped by their goal's door guards' crossed halberds.
"The king and his council are in an emergency session. I'm sorry, but you cannot pass." The right-hand guard shook his head at them, expression blank.
"You MUST let us in! There's a grave danger to everyone, the king must be told!" Jalyck was covered in sweat and exhausted from their hard travel, but he would not rest until he had finished what he saw as his duty, mercenary pay be damned. He was a Glaed, his duty to his country and king were impossible to shirk, more instinct than anything else.
Karyn, not much neater than Jalyck at this point, added her own plea. "Please, you cannot imagine what we've witnessed! You've got to help us!"
"I'm sorry, but you simply cannot go in. I can't change my orders for any reason," the guard started to explain. His expression turned sour, wishing they would go.
"Fine. Have it your way," Jalyck sneered, turning and stalking off down the stairs. The guards sighed, rolling their eyes. It was always some new emergency with the country folk.
Karyn, confused by his lack of persistence with the guards, trotted after. "Jalyck, what are we going to do?" She almost ran into him when he stopped suddenly, looking back up and down the spiraling stair and counting something. "What is it?" she asked.
Instead of answering, Jalyck pulled on a candle holder. There was a muted click and a segment of the stone wall slid back, revealing a passage further into the castle. Before she could even gasp in surprise, Karyn felt herself pulled in and watched the door shut behind them. The design of the passage allowed sufficient light to see by, so it was far from total darkness when her companion started to move again.
"My clan had to know about all these passages," he explained as they moved through them. "We were tasked with guarding the king, and sometimes that might have meant sneaking him out of the castle. This will lead us to the throne room eventually. It's taken us a long time to get here, I'm not about to be turned back this close by any old guard who thinks guarding the king's door is more important than a country." He saw her nod in agreement, leaving them to walk in silence.
* * *
"Oh, Asmodeus, there you are," commented Lilium, swaying over to him. Her current outfit was even more revealing than her last, a sheer black cloth covering her front and a purple cape around her shoulders and bust. A plain black thong and thigh-high boots with the toes exposed paired with arm-length black opera gloves completed her ensemble. One would almost think that wearing less clothing made her stronger.
"Yes, my lady queen, what can your servant do for you?" A blue-haired demon wearing noble finery bowed, arm going to his chest in salute.
"Always so courteous, Asmodeus. Are the sacrifices ready?"
"At your command. They're at the gate, ready to go through and serve their purpose."
"Perfect. Send them through."
"As you command, my lady."
* * *
"...And so, sire, I would like to call upon some of the beastmen to help decipher some of the runes we're finding." The speaker was a wizened old man, aged hands resting on top of an equally gnarled cane. A robe of the deepest green hung about his thin frame. "If they are what I believe them to be, then they could be the answer to stopping the disappearances."
"That would be excellent, archmage. See to it at once." A slightly rotund man, clearly the king by his crown and garb, nodded to the more elderly. "While they seem to be few, unexplained disappearances are something I dislike my people to suffer. The sooner they stop, the better."
The aged man opened his mouth to speak further when a knocking of rocks on each other accompanied a deep, if quiet, rumbling. They both turned in alarm as a passageway hidden inside a wall slid open and two dirty, weary commoners stepped out of it. "What is the meaning of this?!" he blurted, outraged. "Sire, I shall summon the guards!"
"Hold, archmage," the king commanded with an upraised hand. His eyes didn't leave the intruders, but his mind worked furiously. "Those passages...few know of them. How did you come to be here?"
Jalyck clasped his hand over his heart and knelt down, Karyn hesitating while she tried to mimic him in a situation she had never experienced before. "My lord," he began, desparation ringing in his voice, "I come to warn you of a dire threat to you and your people. My companion and I encountered strange stones on our journeys - they could only have been of the most vile evil. Even I could feel it, taste it in the air in these things' presence. I know not what purpose they were for, but-"
Screams from a distance and a familiar voice interrupted him. "Oh, you needn't worry about the purpose of my little stones." The dark skinned woman manifested on top of the table in the center of the room, arms crossed and looking down at the group like chickens for slaughter. "They're just a tool, like many things. Do you hear that?" she asked, closing her eyes and smiling. "The screams of more tools, sacrifices...nothing could be more splendid than a long plan finally coming to a close."
Her eyes flashed open and into focus, shining with intent. "Now, time to reap what has been sewn!" The bystanders could feel the magic in the room as she chanted under her breath. The power was almost tangible, vague hints of movement in the air as her hair was tossed about by the passing of it. The screams outside grew louder and inhuman - the minions sent before her, marked with a brand, were being drained of their life to power her spell. Red runes, identical to those on the stones, scrawled themselves wherever her flesh was exposed, and a dark circle rimmed with arcane symbols of power appeared beneath her, lighting her features with a hellish glow.
"Wh-what? It cannot be! She is a demon!" the aged archmage managed, visibly shaken. The power being drawn by Lilium was affecting the whole room, papers and cloth flapping in a gale of power. "Stop! You cannot do this, you know not what the results will be!"
Karyn screamed, the power of the wind pulling her off her feet. Her boots scrambled for purchase before flying off the floor. She only moved a short distance, however, before encountering the sturdy arm of the much heavier Jalyck. He pulled her in close, sheltering her from the force as best he could. "Hold onto me!" he ordered, kneeling with her arms about him, making them as wind-resistant as possible. He could see the king nearby, struggling to remain upright.
Lilium held her arms down at the floor, palms facing each other with a small gap between them. As her voice grew in volume, echoing in the others' eardrums, a red orb crackling with black lightning formed between her hands. It grew in size at a steady pace, the demon queen's voice reaching a feverish pitch and overwhelming even the sound of the wind. Her eyes gleamed with the crazed depths of absolute madness, the raw power she was drawing leaving her completely bereft of sanity as she handled the hellish orb.
Raising it above her head, she held her arms spread wide, barely able to contain the cataclysmic powers she was wielding. Sweat visibly ran down her body as her voice turned to that of pure ecstasy. Her words finally came into focus, just in time for them to catch her name. "...in the name of Lilium Lashiec, Mother and Queen of all Demons!"
The dark skinned demon threw her arms down, bringing the orb down to shatter against the ground. The effect practically defied description. There was a moment of stillness, everything hanging motionless as the ball condensed into what could have been a singularity, even strands of hair floating as if in zero gravity. The next instant, the fury unleashed dwarfed even that of a hurricane. Pure, condensed POWER flashed out, shattering even some of the castle's mighty stone walls from the force of it. The occupants of the room were thrown into the walls, Karyn being only slightly padded by Jalyck's bulk.
This, however, was a secondary effect. The primary purpose of the spell was much more specific. Throughout all of Nifelheim, no matter how distant, humans of all ages, sizes, and types suddenly dropped like marionettes without strings. Some, stronger than others, struggled and gasped for a moment before succumbing to the demonic energies choking the life from them. None were spared - in mere seconds after the blast, every human life in Nifelheim was extinguished forever.
All, that is, except one. Lilium, panting from the exertion of controlling the terrible forces, eyes glazed over, threw her head back and clutched at the air, cackling wildly. She faded from sight, returning to her home in Asgar. The demoness had no way of knowing that underneath the blacked-out Karyn, Jalyck was stirring.
"Ghu..." He groaned, aching all over from the power washing over him and being thrown into the wall. He could barely breathe, and he moved Karyn off him with great care. "Hey, Karyn...you alive?" he shook her shoulder as he said her name for the first time. He spared a glance at his king and looked away in anguish, seeing his neck tilted at a clearly unsurvivable angle. The archmage was in scarcely better condition, eyes glassy and vacant. "Karyn. Karyn!"
"Mmm...Jalyck? What...I hurt all over..." the beast girl moaned, rubbing her head and coughing. Then she remembered where she was. "What did that demon do?" she asked, looking around in confusion. She tried to stand, but stumbled onto all fours.
"I don't know." The mercenary knelt and helped her up, supporting her light weight. "But...the king...he's dead." The admission wrung his pride. He had failed to warn his lord in time.
"No...this is horrible," Karyn whispered, shocked. Off to the side, she could see a section of wall completely smashed out, revealing devastation in the city completely to its edges. "Did anyone else survive?"
"Let's find out." The two made their way out of the castle, now ruins, finding nothing but bodies of humans. It seemed not a one of them survived. They were surprised to see in the streets that the demon minions' bodies were left as well, dead but intact.
The two had just about given up hope when a shifting of rubble revealed another beastman, a bulky bird type, letting itself out of the collapsed building it was in. "Heyyy!" it, male from the sound of its voice, shouted. It shook itself, blue feathers shedding the dust from the rubble. It adjusted green robes before making its way over to them. "What the hell happened just now? Do you know?"
"Some powerful demon, in the castle," Jalyck tried to explain. "She cast some kind of spell...this is the result. The king..."
The bird beastman blinked a red eye at him. "...no way he survived. I guess we three are the lucky ones. I gotta say...I have no idea what the hell to do. I mean," he said, gesturing around. "Everyone's dead! The CAPITAL CITY is nothing but rubble!"
"Keep searching for survivors," the mercenary ordered. "You bird beastmen are strong, like the bears, right? Karyn can hear things we can't - she can listen for movement, and we can move the rubble."
The green-robed bird nodded, relieved to be doing something. "Sounds good. I was just working as labor for a merchant, this won't be much of a stretch from what he had me doing. Name's Reise," he said, offering the human his hand.
"Jalyck. This is Karyn, as I said." He gestured to the beastgirl, who nodded. The trio immediately got to work, walking around the town in ever-widening circles, uncovering few supplies and fewer surivivors. As it was the capital, however, there ended up a larger than expected total, 23 different beastmen of different types. They were able to cover the majority of the capital, and were fairly certain that no survivors were missed.
"Hey, human," one of them, a great bear beastman, said. His gruff tone was as neutral as it got. "We found some food 'n stuff, but it ain't enough for all of us for long. Maybe a coupla days. And no way we can stay here. There's no shelter. You helped us all get out of that rubble, and for that we're thankful. But we need a solution for this now. Any ideas?"
The mercenary thought about it, turning to his Ranger comrade. "Karyn? Thoughts?"
She shrugged in response, unsure. "I can't catch enough food for this many in this area, and most other places are too far away to make it in a short time. Moving a group like this on foot gets rough. Sorry, Jalyck, I don't have any help to offer."
He nodded in response. "Well, there's one place fairly nearby..."
"Where?" the bear demanded. "The closest town is over a day away."
"Not quite. There's a small village in the mountains...it's not much, but it's big enough for this many easily. It's had some damage, but there are hidden 'emergency shelters' there. We can use those while we rebuild it, and it's fairly secure..."
Karyn blinked before catching on. "Jalyck, you don't mean..."
The bear looked between the two, not knowing what they were on about. "Well? Can we get there or not?"
Giving a resigned shrug, the mercenary motioned for everyone to grab what they could carry and follow. "Yeah. We can get there on foot within the day. It's a fairly hidden village, most citizens didn't know about it. It's got plenty of good farming ground, a clean water source, and plenty of room."
"Sounds perfect!" the great beastman clapped his hands and stooped to pick up a hefty load of supplies. "I am Aleksandr. For your help, I'm in your debt."
"Thank you, Aleksandr, but let's get there first. There's plenty of work to be done after we do."
* * *
Things hadn't been going well since the event. Royce, never the most patient, was growing even angrier about progress back to Nifelheim and Midgar. "What is going on?! Lilium! What did your spell do?!"
"Hmm?" the demoness asked, sounding bored. She leaned back in her contoured couch, unconcerned. "You know well what my spell did."
"Apparently not! No one's been able to get to Nifelheim since you returned. Matteus disappeared completely after going through the gate, and even Asmodai was almost lost! How are we supposed to get Heartcores like this?!" The shadowy humanoid was visibly furious.
"I don't know what your difficulty is. I have had no problems the past couple of days," she answered back, tone icy. She didn't appreciate being yelled at by anyone, even her husband. A trickle of suspicion tickled the back of her mind.
"Well, at least you're the only one who really needed it. You still look tired." A vague wave of fatigue flashed through the reclining demoness, and her suspicion started to grow.
"Rest well, then, my queen." Royce left her room, briefly resting his left hand on the doorframe. As soon as he was gone, Lilium's fatigue diminished, practically confirming her suspicions...and bringing a single tear to her eye.
* * *
"Steady, steady...right there, set 'er down," the gruff voice of Aleksandr instructed, coming out in short puffs as he struggled with one end of a large anvil.
"Heavier than I thought," muttered Reise, bringing his end to rest. The two stepped back, wiping sweat off their brows, and nodding to each other.
"There we go! Now I can get to work fixing up our metal goods." Aleksandr revealed on their way over that he was an accomplished smith, and made it his personal goal to have a shop up and running before the week was out. He even had his first project planned. "Heh, Jalyck will love what I'm gonna do to his blade..." the bear beastman eyed the weapon lying in a corner, next to the glowing Wyvern Core.
Elsewhere in the village, Jalyck was busy speaking with a fox beastman about a book he had found in the capital. "Really, sir, I think I read this right. Those demon corpses are still fresh as they were when the incident happened, and their cores are intact! If we can get them, we can fix up our weapons to actually be of use against any more appearances by the demons!"
"Take it easy," the mercenary said, motioning for the beastman to calm down. "I believe you. But they'll still be there when we're ready for them, and we have a lot of work to do here, as well. If there's time later, we'll send a group to collect them. In the meantime, I need you to keep researching what that demoness did when you're not keeping track of our supplies. And don't call me sir, I'm just a mercenary."
"If you say so, sir." The beastman walked off to continue his tasks, nearly running into a bird beastman carrying wood for one of the houses.
"When are you going to tell them who lived here?" asked a voice from behind him. Jalyck turned and saw Karyn sitting on a wall, watching him. She hopped down and stepped over to him, arms behind her back. Had she a uniform on, she would have looked the embarrassed schoolgirl perfectly.
"Soon. Once we have things organized, we'll need to choose a village leader. I don't really care for the position, but we'll decide who it is at the meeting."
"Okay. Just...Jalyck, we've only seen beastmen types since the spell. I'm worried about what that means."
"So am I, Karyn."
* * *
"Royce..." His queen said his name and stood at the entrance to their bedroom, where he was enjoying a small pudding.
Biting back irritation, he forced himself to relax before answering. "Yes, Lilium?"
She paused a moment, unwilling to speak her doubts to him, yet daily growing more positive that she knew the truth. It was a painful admission. "You do...love me, don't you? That's why you married me?"
A spoonful of pudding paused halfway to his mouth. Lowering it slowly, he turned to face her. "Why, of course I do. What other reason could there be?" His form made his grin sickening to see as he realized that, however she did it, she knew. There was no point in trying to hide it now.
A tear coursed its way down a brown cheek. His answer confirmed everything, and in an increasingly rare moment of clarity, she knew that one of them wouldn't be leaving this room. "Damn you," she whispered, heart wrenching, as she raised her hands to bring forth a ball of energy before them.
"Oh, but we're already in hell, my dear." Royce set his pudding aside, affecting unconcern, and stood facing her. "My dear, deluded Lilium. Do you truly think this will work? Could it be, you don't understand that it's already too late for you?"
Her only response was to fire her spell, and she watched as it crossed the distance in an instant, striking him full-on in the chest. She watched as he didn't even attempt to defend himself. The orb flared and sizzled, filling the air with the scent of burning hair. The demon grunted, in obvious pain, but his grin never faltered. Lilium was dismayed to realize how drained the single spell had left her, and struggled to call forth enough for another.
"I think that's quite enough of that," Royce muttered, quickly uttering a spell under his breath.
Lilium's concentration and efforts at recovery were shattered and purple lightning wreathed her frame. Her body curved in agony as she felt the pain of what Royce was doing to her. A momentary glance, spared through sheer force of will, showed the lines of energy connecting them from their wedding rings. That was all she had time to note before her mind blanked, every fiber of her being alternately seared in a roaring inferno and frozen in a bone-deep chill. Each second was an age of the universe before the spell ceased and she dropped down, collapsing onto her front, unable to move. Her breathing came in ragged gasps as she fought to stay conscious.
Royce, however, was awash with fresh power. "Ahhh, how MAGNIFICENT! Could this be how you once felt, my dear Lilium?! Perhaps even more recently as you, in your attempts at 'improving' our available Heartcores, cast the spell that created that horrible Limbo and ruined Nifelheim?!" Energy radiated off him in waves, uncontrolled power that rattled wall hangings and knocked over stands. "This is glorious! Well, my dear wife, rest there a while. I'm off to have a bit of fun!" Royce faded from sight, leaving the severely drained Lilium on the floor and the room in ruins.
The demoness lay there for some time before she could hear footsteps approaching, but was scarcely able to turn her head and see who cared enough to investigate the damage. "Royce, Lilium! What's happened? I could hear..." Asmodeus slid to a stop before the door, briefly robbed of the ability to speak as he looked onto the scene. "M-my queen, what...?"
"Asmodeus...ever loyal, ever loving...ever honest..." the wounded Lilium sighed, a smile on her lips through tears. "I was such a fool...blinded by my own heart...My mind was not so far gone back then, yet I let my own emotions bar the truth from me."
"My lady...what are you saying?" The blue-haired demon dropped to his knees next to her, not allowing himself to hold his master's wife but desiring to do so in the depths of his heart. His eyes scanned her form, taking in the signs of injury...and eliciting a gasp as he saw something he never thought he would. "An egg, hatching already...Mistress Lilium, you cannot mean to..."
"From the beginning, I should have chosen you...now, I must ask a horrible favor. Please, Asmodeus...I cannot bear any more. Royce has drained me utterly, and will only continue to do so, should I recover. I will let my Heartcore be consumed...please, I beg you. Take care of me - take care of my daughter." Before Asmodeus could react, she held out her arms to the small, pink-haired girl emerging from the egg. Whether it was truly aware or not yet was irrelevant - instinct would act in the young demoness. Holding it close to her bosom with one arm, she used the other on herself and cried out in pain as she removed her own Heartcore.
The child accepted it happily, not yet conceiving what it was doing. It giggled as it felt the fresh life and power from its mother, and Lilium watched with swiftly fading strength as her daughter became a true demon, right at birth.
Asmodeus scooped the child into his arms as Lilium Lashiec, his queen and unrequited love, died on the floor before him.
* * *
"...and that concludes the vote, I believe," Jalyck said to the small crowd in the village. "Our nominated and duly chosen first Village Leader is...myself." He rubbed the back of his head, trying to give a smile before the applause. "Before we go about our business, I'd like to say a few things..."
A familiar gruff voice boomed out from the back of the crowd. "A leader in times like these needs a proper symbol, human! And I have just the thing." Aleksandr worked his way through to Jalyck, holding out a long object wrapped in cloth. "You've done and shared much with us. I took the liberty of touching up your blade with the Core you had." He threw back the cloth, revealing a fine scabbard next to a gleaming blade with a dark jewel in the pommel.
Jalyck accepted it gingerly, awed at the craftsmanship. There was something about the blade, though...
"Ooh, that's it!" the fox beastman who was researching the spell Lilium cast shouted. "That Wyvern Core! You had it right next to the demon's spell, right?! It must have affiliated itself with demonic magic and protected you! Of course!" He slapped his forehead, appalled that he hadn't figured that out sooner.
"That's good to know, Reipard, but we still don't know what that spell did."
Before the fox could answer, the world seemed to darken and a voice boomed out of nowhere. "That spell was the biggest mistake my wife ever made." Materializing before them, Royce stood with his arms crossed, shimmering with power. "Ahh, I suppose there's no point in fretting over what has been done. I'll just have to see if your Heartcores will satisfy me sufficiently...My word! A human still lives?" Royce eyed Jalyck, mouth grinning in inhuman proportions. "I thought her spell would only leave the beastmen alive."
Shock stole the words from the gathered village and slowed individual reactions severely. The demon lord looked about expectantly. "No comments? No banter? How disappointing! I should have come and taken over Nifelheim long before Lilium cast that wretched curse!" His eyes scanned the crowd, grin somehow managing to seem wider. "I suppose there's no sense in waiting, if you're not going to make this interesting!" At this exclamation, he dove down and ran a hand into the torso of nearest beastman, ripping out the Heartcore and consuming it in moments. "Delicious! I can't say it's better than human...more like a foreign imitation, different in subtle ways!"
The gruesome sight brought everyone back to the present. Female beastmen gathered up children and hurried to remove them from this vile demon while the males grabbed for weapons or swung claws. Reise swung an axe overhead, slicing through the air and Royce to seemingly no effect and embedding itself into the earth. He didn't even have time to try and remove it before Royce backhanded him through the air, sending him through a nearby wall and leaving him unconscious.
"You know, I find it amusing," the demon laughed, watching blades and claws slice through the air and not harming him as he moved about through them. "Asmodai spent months working on just how to eliminate this village's people discreetly, and you all just waltz in after like you own the place! Scavengers indeed, just like the animals you look like!" He laughed, ripping another Heartcore from a fox beastman that was trying to use magic against him.
A roar interrupted his fun, briefly stealing his grin at the volume of it. He spun to see Aleksandr charge, massive clawed hands actually making contact. Royce could feel the impact, though it did little more than hurt his fun. Still, this was enough. Mouth turned into a frown, he grabbed the bear beastman by a paw and shoved his hand into his chest, pulling out his Heartcore and raising it front of his face. Shocked and mortally wounded, the bear blinked and crashed to his knees as the strength left him. Within moments he was dead.
Royce threw his head back and laughed, bring the Heartcore to himself for consumption when an arrow smashed into his hand, knocking his treat away and onto the ground. Growling, he whirled, looking for the archer. "You DARE to interrupt me-!" he screamed, eyeing Karyn as she tried to knock another arrow, terrified. Her attempts were halted as he practically flew over to her, the same hand she shot going around her throat. He lifted her into the air, savoring her choking gasps and useless struggles to escape. "Nothing quick for you, cat! You can suffer a moment before your death! No one here can stop m-"
His words turned into an unintelligible scream of pain as red blood sprayed from the stump his arm used to be. Wide-eyed and shocked, he looked into the furious visage of Jalyck, sword dripping red. "H-how...?!"
The human held his blade before him, pointing it straight at Royce's chest. "BASTARD DEMON! It's YOUR KIND'S fault my clan was killed, it's YOUR KIND'S fault our home was ruined so, it's YOUR KIND'S fault there are so many dead! You will PAY FOR YOUR CRIMES!" He leapt forward, blade poised to stab into the demon lord's chest.
Overcome by surprise at the human's ability to wound him and driven partially mad himself from the power flowing through him - and now out of him, the wound bleeding that as well - Royce teleported as fast as he could, vanishing into the space between worlds. Voice full of hatred and disbelief, he shouted one last time to the villagers. "I won't forget this! I'll destroy you all! You hear me?! THIS ISN'T OVER!"
Jalyck dropped his sword to the ground after a moment, the fight leaving him drained on a multitude of levels. He brought himself to Karyn's side, kneeling and lifting her into his arms as others looked after the other wounded. "Karyn? Karyn?!"
The girl coughed weakly, turning to him and cracking open her eyes. "Jalyck..." Her arms snaked their way around his neck and she sighed, coughing again. "Is it over?"
"Thank the light," the human muttered, holding her close. He could feel her turn in towards him for warmth after her brush with death. "I was worried you were..."
"I thought I was, too. Thank you..." She coughed once more, her breathing easing slightly. "You saved my life...again...just like at the castle..."
"I wasn't able to save the rest of his victims. Aleksandr...the others...I don't know if Reise is alive, he's still through that wall..." His face contorted with anguish, his mind berating him for their deaths even though he had moved as fast as he was able.
The cat girl put a hand on his cheek, turning his face towards hers and kissing him. "You did everything you could...we all did," she said. His surprised expression brought a small giggle and smile to her. "Thanks again, Jalyck." He nodded and helped her to her feet, both of them moving to help the others who were wounded and to honor the dead.
* * *
"Damn it, that stupid woman! That damned human! Damn it ALL!" Royce shouted at nothing, shaking his regrown arm. All about him was the neutral shade and emptiness of Limbo, with no way of knowing where he was. "I won't be trapped in here forever! I'll find my way out, one way or another!" His mind raced, constantly repeating the recent events and obsessing over them. "My wife creates this wretched nothingness...the human ruins my power by making me regrow my arm...I lost all of Lilium's power when I lost THAT...DAMN YOU, HUMAN! I'll make sure your descendants suffer a hundredfold for this!"
Royce brought his breathing and anger under control with great effort and set himself to the task of finding his way back to Asgar. <Lilium's power was enough to let me bypass this cursed place last time...how did Asmodai get out...? I can't make sense of this place!>
* * *
Songbirds sang and cool spring winds blew through the mountains, ruffling the white dress Karyn wore. She clutched the flower bundle close to her chest and smiled wide, blushing. Waving to the other villagers with one arm, the other remained linked with Jalyck's, holding him close to her side. "Thank you all so much!" she shouted to the gathered crowd, tossing her bouquet into the air to the children. A small fox girl caught it and giggled, showing it off to her friends. The human offered his own wave, face showing a rare amount of pleasure as he grinned.
The two of them walked through the village, everyone shouting well-wishes along their path. At long last they came to their new home and, giving one final wave, they walked in their door. Jalyck picked her up with a small squeak escaping her and he smiled, surprised to be so satisfied with life. "Welcome home...Karyn Glaed." She offered no words in return, only holding him by the neck and leaning into him happily.
* * *
Asmodai looked over the newest batch of 'pathfinders' he was preparing to send through the gate to find a way through Limbo. Months had passed since his master's disappearance and his mistress' death. There was much to be done, and a way through to Nifelheim and Midgar was still needed quite badly. His mind drifted briefly to the young pink-haired demoness growing rapidly inside the castle, the daughter of his lady. She was getting along well with his own daughter, a great relief. Not only would she have a playmate, of sorts, but being friends with the Overlord's daughter would add even more safety to her. He was about to give instructions to the gathered minions when the gate flashed. "Who used the gate without permi-...My lord?!"
Royce stumbled out, looking disheveled and dazed. Mild insanity flashed through his eyes before he brought himself back under control. "Asmodai...Ha, hahahah! I knew I'd be able to get through!" The demon lord laughed at his own success.
"Lord Royce...what happened to you?" The overfiend looked at the torn clothes and missing sleeve on one arm, alarmed and concerned.
"Ahh, Asmodai, concerned as ever! Don't worry, I am quite all right. I do, however, believe I shall need a change of clothes...and some refreshment..." Royce's voice turned from cheery to malevolent as he spoke, a grin that could freeze magma on his face.
The blue-haired demon swallowed and nodded, regaining his composure. "I shall send some of our remaining 'sacrifices' to your chambers, then?"
"No need, I think. I'll be just fine after I spend some time with my beloved wife..." Royce caught his minion's look out of the corner of his eye. "What is it?"
Asmodai looked about hesitantly before answering. "Ah, my lord, when you disappeared...well, Lady Lilium has...passed on."
Royce stood stock still, grin gone in an instant. "WHAT?!"
"You now have, instead of a wife, a lovely new...daughter..."
A wordless scream ripped itself from the overlord's throat as he raged over the ruination of his plan.
* * *
Tears slipped down Karyn's face as she held her husband's hand, listening to him breathe weakly. "Jalyck...you can't die..."
The former mercenary raised the hand to stroke her cheek and he smiled as she clutched it to her, nuzzling it gently. "Karyn, there's nothing to be done. That demoness' spell...there's nothing we can do to fight it."
The fox beastman, Reipard, stood to the side and nodded. "It's unfortunately true, Lady Karyn. I've studied it as thoroughly as possible, as has everyone else with the aptitude. We have no way of stopping Lilium's spell from finishing its work. It seems crazy, to actually alter the air of Nifelheim to be hazardous to humans...but then, so was she, it seems."
"But...I thought the Wyvern's Core..."
Reipard shook his head, solemn. "It protected him from the spell's immediate effect that every other human suffered. But, apparently, it was meant to prevent them from repopulating from Midgar to here as well. I truly am sorry...Lord Jalyck means a lot to all of us."
"It isn't fair," Karyn sobbed, leaning over the human and holding him. "We only had ten years together...we should have had forty or more..."
Jalyck lifted her chin, giving her a kiss. "We had a good ten years, though. And we have two strong, healthy children. You'll have plenty of love left in your life, my wife. Garryk and Shayna will need a great deal of your love and affection yet, and they will need to be trained by someone capable like you. Demonsbane, my sword, will be passed down to our children to use. They will need it."
"The whole village considers them their children, Jalyck. They'll have plenty of everything, from training to affection...except they won't have their father..." She sniffed as he wiped more tears from her eyes.
"I know, love. But that's the one thing they will have to do without. It looks like no humans will ever be on Nifelheim...even our children were born Hyarl'narin. This is just the way it has to be now." He held her close, feeling his strength leaving him as the very air of Nifelheim brought death to him.
Kissing her one last time, he turned to the fox with them. "Reipard...I want you and your family to take over the village."
"M-me, Lord Jalyck? Are you certain?"
The human smiled and nodded. "Yes. You've got the smarts and skills to be a good leader, and Langriss sounds more regal than Glaed. My clan was always about protecting the rulers, not being them. I'll leave that job for someone more capable - you."
"If you say so, then I will do my best." The fox bowed before the human before him, full of respect before exiting, leaving husband and wife to their final moments together.
Karyn watched Reipard go and turned back to her dying husband. "Jalyck...I love you so much..."
He nodded at her, beatific smile on his face. "I know, Karyn. If I could change the world to spend even a minute more together, I would. But I cannot, and my body is failing even now." His breathing grew more labored. "Karyn...my wife...I love you..."
His hand reached up to her cheek, caressing it one final time before it fell, lifeless. "I know, Jalyck...I know..." She stayed by his side, sobbing into the blanket covering him. It was almost an hour before she left the room, wiping at red eyes. "I'll make sure we never forget what happened." She turned at the door, looking at his still form one last time. "I'll make sure we are trained and ready for whenever those bastard demons return. Blade, spell, bow, whatever it takes to defeat them. Our whole Glaed clan will grow and prepare for them, every man and woman. We'll be ready...Jalyck..."
* * *
So ended what is considered the first year of the war between the demons and the beastmen. Several hundred years would pass and countless lives on both sides would be lost before the demons would eventually emerge victorious, though victory is a debatable term for it. Of what happens after the war, much more is told and touched upon in the story of Heartcore.