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Sir Vey Lance

The Heart of Darkness

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This is a story I have been working on and off for a while during my early writing years, eventually culminating in a Dungeon and Dragon campaign that deviated heavily from my script. Figured it couldn't hurt to post stuff I originally intended to tell here. This thing is written from multiple POVs, so I normally include the name of the person as the chapter's name. Update will be from weekly to biweekly.

Hang on, biweekly is twice per week or once per two weeks again?

 

Prologue: Robert

 

Baron Robert Callaghan grimly studied the purple-red stump that, up until yesterday, held his entire left arm. When he first gained this injury at the maw of the colossal creature, the piercing lance of pain had nearly brought the obese old man down to his knees, and had it not been for his three decades-long acquaintanceship with war, death and destruction, Robert would have done just that, presenting the entirety of himself as a meal. Lacking proper treatment while being confined to a dank and dirty cave up until now, the injury had started to fester, plaguing the man’s every waking moment with delirious fever.

 

Compared to the majority of his men, Robert’s condition looked like a prick on the finger.

 

Faint rays of morning light grew through the mouth of the cave, casting their luminance on a grotesque picture of mutilated corpses, eviscerated soldiers and misshapen lumps of bloodied flesh that were once people. They were moaning, either mumbling to themselves or whimpering from an agony so overpowering that it had erased the final vestige of sanity. Occasionally, someone would let out a blood-curling scream only to fell silent soon after, his strength or lungs finally giving out.

 

Robert’s daughter, Clarissa, ran back and forth like a caged rat, knitting wounds and relieving pain with her little unnatural talent. A gift from the Maker it was, or so had the priest claimed when the Baron brought his daughter to him for fear of her soul, though the assurance never stopped Clarissa from being something else in Robert’s eyes. Trudging through the injured and the dead with a grave facade, she did not understand, or simply forbid her mind from processing the same thought that plagued Robert’s mind. What these wretched souls sought was neither treatment nor prayer.

 

With quivering hand, the Baron slowly reached for a long sword readily discarded next to him. He stood up, tears welling up in his remaining eye, and looked at Clarissa’s half-brother, Lukel, who lay motionlessly in front of him.

 

Once, Lukel Callaghan was the dream of every noble girl and the envy of his peers within the land of Callaghan with his glisten Varelish skin, brown hair and sea-blue eyes. Now a ghost of that man stared back at Robert with both his legs messily severed below the waist, just two lumps pf meaty fringe for the flies to feast on. Saved for his eyes which twitched left and right insistently, there was nothing left of his son in there.

 

Robert held up his sword, its tip pointing downward, and brought it down on Lukel’s heart.

 

His son’s eyes shot open for a moment, then slowly, blissfully, closed themselves, igniting an intense desire within Robert to do the same to himself, though whether it was out of guilt or a longing to escape from this hell, the Baron couldn’t tell.

 

“NO!†a feminine voice screamed out from behind him. It didn’t stop the Baron from doing the same to the soldier lying next to Lukel. It didn’t matter that Robert’s effort was wasted on a man whose belly was already bloated with foul gases, his skin marred with purple striations of death.

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Chapter I: Clarissa

 

“What the bloody hell,†exclaimed Clarissa as she tried to wrestle the blade from his grip, “are you doing?!â€

 

“Saving them…†he muttered, but relinquished the weapon without a struggle.

 

His daughter gritted her teeth in frustration. “Then you have a funny way of doing it, Lord Father. Jasper, Harry, you two come over here and restrain the Baron!†The two soldiers looked at each other in uncertainty and, despite their ranks and posts, complied.

 

Clarissa knelt down to examine Lukel’s body. Trickles of sweat running down her flushed cheeks, she removed his chainmail and hovered a hand above the bleeding, gashing sword wound. A cloud of warm, lustrous golden particles came forth from the tip of her fingers, covering his entire body like a cocoon of light. This carried on for a minute or longer, until the glow died down around Lukel, his body remaining perfectly, completely still. Fuming, Clarissa cursed under her breath.

 

Shaking her head, she stood up and faced the rest of the men who were still capable of holding a blade and a shield in their hands. Clarissa broke the remaining grim-faced soldiers into squads of archers positioned along the two elevated shelf, where their arrows could raise the most carnage when the monsters advanced into the cave. The rest she assigned either a long spear or a large oval curved shield that can mask its holder’s entire profile. The latter marched toward the front in unpracticed but otherwise good order, forming an impenetrable wall of shields separating the spearmen from their adversary during the time of fighting. Another squad stood ready in the back, primed to swap positions with the frontline soldiers at her command. With this set up, injured or exhausted individuals could be quickly recalled and replaced, allowing them to buy as much time as possible.

 

Knowing that she had fulfilled what little her knowledge of warfare could offer, Clarissa approached the soldiers and tried to boost morale with words of encouragement, offering prayers to the devout, tightening a belt here and straightening a chainmail there.

 

Thunder rolled again, sending a wave of tremor through the rest of the cave like a minor earthquake, as the rain outside fell in sheets rather than drops. A thick, greasy, shadowy miasma slowly saturated the atmosphere. Something putrid filled the air, something rotten.

 

Outside, a horde of misshapen monsters moved swiftly toward their final hold. As if the creatures were made to materialize from humanity’s collective nightmares, their appearances alone were horror given flesh, and the noises they made registered more as a shivering in the spine than a sound in Clarissa’s ears. Malice and a ravenous hunger exuded from their features – Clarissa hesitated to use the word faces, for many of them seemed to lack even such a fundamental body part – as they stampeded toward the men and women of Callaghan’s final stand, the larger ones crushing their smaller kin under their steps.

 

But fright was a luxury no one here could afford.

 

“Soldiers, friends, brothers,†Clarissa beckoned, loudly enough to be heard even through the cacophonous background. “This is it, the moment of truth. Look in front of you for your enemies, then behind, at our women and children, for what is at stake. Each and every person of you here has devoted himself in aiding my father, in protecting our land, in honoring our way of life, and for that we have come to trust each other with our lives. These creatures, they are here to destroy our lives, to defile everything we have ever stood for. But if they thought we would let them do as they please without a fight, then they are dead wrong.†

 

“I have heard murmurs of discontent, talks of withdrawal. But I understand your concerns, for even after all is said and done, we are still humans. But all hope is not lost, for even as we speak, my father’s courier is fast on his way here along with the might and fury of the Cross Crusaders right alongside him. With holy steel and blessed silver, they will scoured the earth of these accursed abominations. But before that, think of Ser Farrel the Dragonslayer, who singlehandedly fought the colossus with wings that span mountains. Or King Amzaram, who led a paltry army of one thousand men right into the heart of Hell for ten years and came back triumphant. Before the Crusaders, there were soldiers. And before these monsters, there were humans.â€

 

Clarissa put on her helmet, then looked up and gaze into the eyes of her father’s men one last time, for many of them this would be the last opportunity for her to do so. “A week from now, the courage and valor we demonstrate today will be made into chords that make the minstrels weep. A month from now, the king will commission marble statues with the likeness drawn from the best among us, to be placed in Antiquan’s Hall of Glory. A year from now, our names shall forever be engraved in the Canticle of Light. Hold the line! Fight alongside me! Show these vermin what hell truly is!â€

 

Steel rasped on steel as a storm of approval spread through nearly one hundred men, sword leaving their sheaths and holding high as fear, through words, transformed into determination. The soldiers’ furious roar shook the atmosphere, amplified tenfold by the echoes reflected from the cave walls and ceiling. “For Callaghan,†they declared in unison.

 

“Men of Callaghan! Who wants to live forever?†Clarissa joined their battle cry and, for a single moment there, she could have fooled herself that there was indeed a courier on his way here with reinforcement.

 

Thunder rumbled.

 

The earth beneath trembled from the horde’s treading.

 

Archers primed their bows, aiming for the largest creature towering over the entrance.

 

The first few of the hellish horde broke into the cave, slamming themselves into the defensive wall and subsequently turned into pin-cushions by the spearmen.

 

One of the shield holders got swallowed whole.

 

Hell broke loose.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               ***********************

 

 

Between the time the man saw the columns of stygian smoke billowing into the night sky from the blaze of Callaghan and the time the sun rose two days later, he had covered a distance of nearly three hundred miles. His horse had collapsed two hours ago, its mouth frothing from overexertion, and he was left to run on his own through the dark woods.

 

Having confirmed that the razed foliage and slain wildlife he encountered along the way was fresh in their making, he slowed his pace to a steady, ground-eating jog, but kept running, heedless of the razor-sharp leaves and countless bracken that whipped into his legs, his eyes darting back and forth for signs of the monstrous horde. It was not a large forest by any measure, but the thickets of tall grass and uneven terrain made a mockery of his navigational effort. Twice now his travel had led him to a straight drop down the mountain, its deadly cliffs painstakingly camouflaged by shrubs and brushes.

 

Above, grey cloud rolled across as rain started to come in droves.

 

Far below, something let loose a primal, ground-shaking roar. The only way for him to scale down the treacherous cliff ahead was either through a roundabout path that would take a few more hours at the very best, or by gravity.

 

Grinding his teeth in frustration, the man cladded in black steel  took out a red glass vial, gauging the pain-suppressing potion sloshing inside with mixed feelings.

 

“This,†he muttered, downing the content, “…is gonna hurt like hell later".

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                               ************************

 

“Everyone, get down!â€

 

Clarissa instinctively dropped down on the ground in a prone, her head a hair-breadth away from being smashed by a giant boulder hurled by the hulking behemoth further down the slope of the mountain. Though she was initially confident of her warfare knowledge thanks to the staggering number of books on the matter she had devoured, reality was a hundred times more brutal and a thousand times more chaotic. The projectile whizzed into a soldier behind her and, still carrying his pulverized corpse on one of its side, smashed into a nearby wall, sending of a webwork of cracks through solid rock.

 

“Merciful Maker,†she gasped.

 

Down below, the rest of her men weren’t doing any better. Within the first few minutes, roughly half a score of younger, less experienced soldiers were tore apart by a barbed creature that looked like a cross between a lamprey and a giraffe. It capture an armored man entirely with its prodigious, funnel-shaped mouth lined with three rows of serrated teeth, then proceeded to shred him alive, the sickly crunching and ripping noises all but drilled into the heads of everyone within the cave. Men with heavy weapons surrounded and struck the monster with blows of unbelievable force, tearing its skin and smashing the bones beneath, yet still the creature feasted, treating its mortal injuries like a minor hindrance. Perhaps given a full day, a school of fish could nibble the great leviathan down, but time was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

 

On the other shelf, Robert’s other squad of archers had abandoned their bows in favor of the swords, doing what little they could to fend off an advancing mass of writhing tentacles, each as long and heavy as a trebuchet arm and continuously oozing a foul-smelling brown mucus. Anyone trying to impale its main body - a large central stump housing its inner organs wrapped over by a thin white film – soon found himself wrapped within its innumerous appendages, his flesh liquefied by the acid and subsequently consumed by the suckers lining the tentacles. The victims would die in seconds with most of their meat eaten right off their steaming bones. Thus far, the soldiers had no choice but to hack at it from a considerable distance, buying each severed tentacle with two or three in their own ranks.

 

The rest of the raiding force painted a canvas of the apocalypse all on their own, though most were either the size of a grown man or a head taller, nowhere as gargantuan as the colossi. They were more brawn than brain, and against the more organized resistance from her father’s men, the fight turned out to be nothing more than a stalemate, at least until the bulk of the horde ascended into the cave.

 

Even when she hadn’t lifted her blade or fired off an arrow, Clarissa found herself panting in sympathy with her father’s men. There was absolutely nothing more draining than the exertion, exhilaration, and the terror of having to participate in a fight that was a lot more akin to a slaughter. Shaking her head, she focused her attention on the giant lamprey-like creature from earlier and found that even though in a contest of brute force, the creature would easily devastate a small legion, its size and mass implied the skeletal structure beneath could afford slow and deliberate movements at best. It had teeth that could grind through metal and a flexible neck that greatly enhanced its reach, but for some of her best archers with eyes keen enough to shoot down birds still in fly, that thing might as well had been standing still.

 

Then a realization hit her, causing Clarissa to run toward the eastern bluff, where Blackburn and his squad of archers still relentlessly unleashed volley after volley of arrows at the nearest group of monsters. The bald-headed man, in his scratchy baritone, continuously barked orders at his subordinates to aim for the center of mass rather than trying to discern the creatures’ vulnerable points, demanding that every creature is hit thrice to bring the enemy down reliably. As Clarissa watched, Blackburn aimed and struck a monster, this one looking like a gigantic slug with four contorted human bodies as its eye stalks, scattering bits and pieces of its innards for a good twenty feet.

 

“Blackburn, I need you to do something for me,†she said.

 

“What comes, lass?†inquired the dark haired veteran.

                                        

“See that gigantic monster over there?†Clarissa asked. She brandished from her side pouch a circular carved stone nearly as large as her palm that glowed and radiated warm air. “I want that thing to ingest this,†she pointed to the lamprey-giraffe creature.

 

“It’s…a heat rune,†Blackburn regarded the object quizzically, then looked up at her as if she had gone mad.

 

“Trust me, it will work,†Clarissa deliberately left out the “or at least I hope it does since we are all going to die otherwise.†She flipped the small rock on its back, tracing the various lines that formed its sigil. Triple intersecting lines at the top for storing thermal energy specifically, then a complicate junction in the middle to limit wasteful discharge, coupled with a symbol that resembled an hourglass loosened at the waist meant the runestone was crafted to act like a personal heater one could carry along during winter.

 

Clarissa took out her carving dagger and began modifying the pattern. Three zigzagged lines along the core line of a symbol would give it the opposite effect, while entrapping a specific junction with a circle would nullify it altogether. She scrapped away the section of the sigil that was meant to limit the heat flow, then gave it some additional details that would have given Mekal, her Runic teacher, a stroke if her heart wasn’t already ripped out from her chest a day ago.

 

“Done!†she exclaimed after a minute of tinkering, handing the archer her modified runestone. “Can you deliver this into the monster’s mouth within two minutes?â€

 

His expression didn’t betray it, but Blackburn accepted the object with great reluctance. “Why? What happens if I don’t fire this after two minutes?â€

 

“You don’t want to find out,†she swallowed and took a couple of steps back.

 

The old archer narrowed his eyes with suspicion, but proceeded to do just what he had been ordered to with a shrug of resignation. He took out another arrow from the war quiver laid on the ground, its heavy steel tip made balanced by four thin razor blades for fletching on the opposite end. Using a short length of rope, Blackburn tied the heat rune given to him to the neck of the arrow shaft.

 

“Angle is a bit odd,†he noted, “though the added weight shouldn’t be a problem at this distance. Now if only the thrice damned beast would open its mouth.â€

 

“The monster tends to prioritize its more aggressive attackers,†she whispered grimly. “Hold it steady, wait for Kendell and his team to hit it again.â€

 

Two men in the ground team both aimed for the creature’s right leg with their axe and warhammer, extracting from it a loud hateful cry.

 

Seeing the monster’s vast mouth expanded as it prepared to attack, Blackburn drew back the string of his great bow; its lower end firmly anchored into the ground, the weapon’s staves groaned like the mast of a ship trapped in a storm. Bundles of muscle knotted in his back, shoulders and arms while the old man’s face turned red with effort, his teeth clenching shut as he aligned the shot. The bow was clearly not meant to be used by human, even a giant his size, thus requiring a variation of a force runestone attached to its side so as to mitigate the immense strain on its user.

 

The grain of the bow writhed and quivered, even as it was bent, and Clarissa was startled to realize that the bow’s runestone had long been depleted: lacking the time to swap it for a new one, the archer was holding the string taut with everything left in his body. He pulled on it until the end of the arrow was next to his eyes, imparting all the power he could into the missile, and, finally, released it with a cry of effort.

 

A loud thundercrack overwhelmed her sense of hearing as the arrow ripped through the air, so swiftly she could barely followed it with naked eyes. Its large head dug through and into the funnel mouth of the lamprey, and for a moment nothing seemed to happen as the creature merely whipped its head back slightly before resuming its carnage. Clarissa’s heart sank into her stomach.

 

It went on for a few seconds, then a flash of light and a whumping sound came as sudden as they went, accompanied by bursts of smoke and licks of fire that poured from the creature’s mouth and wounds. It stopped in its track, wobbled, then gave a high pitch shriek and collapsed onto the ground in a disgusting mess, dirt flying into the air while the dozens of rocks from the ceiling were jarred loose and rained down.

 

“Huh…†said Blackburn, his chest heaving up and down erratically from exhaustion. “No one told me monsters’ blood is flammable.â€

 

“I re-crafted the runestone to release everything it held after two minutes. A thermal detonation is a lot more than a flash of heat and hot wind when it is surrounded by flesh,†explained Clarissa as she observed her handiwork, her expression half-mortifying, half-proud.

 

“That’s…good to know,†the archer said faintly.

 

Clarissa ordered one of the soldiers nearest to her to rummage through their winter supply for as many heat runes as possible, carefully instructed the surviving soldiers on how to re-craft the sigil as she did, then departed to check on the rest of the battlefield. Down below, her father’s men were slowly regaining their ground with the large monster from earlier out of the fray, heavy swords ripping into their opponents’ muscular hides and warhammers shattering anything unfortunate enough to stand in their way. Meanwhile, the other squad of archers had managed to take care of the mass of tentacles by bombarding the ground beneath it with a handful of explosive force runestone - the variant that people employed to make tunnels through mountains - forcing an impact strong enough to trigger a minor rockslide that even swept away the group of creatures at the cave’s entrance. Both teams of archers then began covering the ground team’s flanks, allowing the auxiliary force to come up and retrieve the wounded. Though with the monsters driven to the mouth of the cave, Clarissa took a second too long in commanding the soldiers not to give pursuit, resulting in a few eager men chasing their opponents all the way outside, their subsequent screams the only indication of their fates, and of those who would let down their guard for even a moment.

 

Getting back was the textbook advice for this scenario, though something told Clarissa doing so would risk generating confusion among her people’s ranks and allowing the enemy to build up a deadly momentum that could wipe them out in an instance. Then again, staying was asking for death, as the moment one of the colossal monsters from earlier clambered in, they would be all be fish in the barrel, so everything had to be slow, controlled and uniform. Taking a cursory headcount of the survivors, Clarissa stole a glance down the mountain slope and found herself staring at pitch black darkness, courtesy of the abnormal black miasma that followed the horde wherever it went, but judging from the noise she was certain they outnumbered her father’s men at least five to one.

 

A small, foolish, naïve part of her prayed to the Maker, wishing fervently that the monsters would be discouraged by the resistance so far and turned away. Clarissa simply couldn’t see how everyone around her could keep this up for a minute longer. The monsters fought with a bloodlust almost feral and a blatant disregard for their own preservation; they would risk everything just to cripple one of the soldiers, so that the ones behind could move in for the kill. But more important than anything else, they could absorb the losses, while the life of a single soldier could easily determine the outcome of her fight.

 

The sun had been completely hidden by patches of dark cloud now, its faint and few rays of light obscured by a thick screen of sleet and rain. Outside, wind turned into howling gale as trees toppled down under their own weight, their roots tore straight from the ground as if by a giant invisible hand.

 

Blackburn came over to hand her a skin of water, one which she downed in a single gulp, throwing every lesson she had ever sat through on table manners and social etiquette to the wind.

 

“How are you holding up, lass?†asked him.

 

“Better than that thing,†she gestured with her head at the lamprey monster from before.

 

“That’s not saying a lot.†His lips pressed into a thin line, then he spoke after a short while. “No one is coming for us, isn’t it?â€

 

Clarissa tensed up, countless thoughts and excuses racing to the forefront of her mind in an attempt to salvage the situation. She stayed quiet at first, then upon realizing that there was absolutely no way for her to bluff herself out of this situation, Clarissa just nodded meekly.

 

“You should work on your - what did Robert call it again? Façade? No, something fancier. Ah right, diplomatic front. Whenever you lie, you have this tendency to fidget with your hair and avoid everyone’s eyes. Not very obvious, mind, but they are all over the place if one knows what he’s supposed to look for." Blackburn gave the front of the cave the thousand yard stare. "Care to tell me the reason behind the lie?â€

 

“It just…seemed like a convenient idea at that time,†she hung her head morosely.

 

Blackburn waited patiently for her to continue.

 

“A few days after we left Callaghan keep, I saw a mother slitting her children’s throats then took her own life after witnessing her husband and parents eaten alive earlier that day. I saw Captain Weimar deserting his post and took half of our troops with him further into the forest instead of following us here, and do you know why we couldn’t resupply our water yesterday?â€

 

She took a deep breath. “Because their organs and body parts were found strewn all over the creek, and I could even tell the little floating black clumps near the bank to be Weimar’s lungs, because he was the only one I knew who smoked that much. Tell me Blackburn, what need is there for the monsters’ claws and teeth if we are already tearing ourselves into bite-sized chunks for them?â€

 

Her eyes took on a cold, distant quality. “I need a goal, a hope, something to keep our group moving in the event that somehow, miracles do happen. Judge me if you must, but it was the best I could come up with.â€

 

Blackburn settled his hand on her shoulder, his grip firm and reassuring, “It doesn’t matter what this old man has to say, lass. Right or wrong, your decision got us this far, did it not?†He glanced at Robert, whose back was against the wall and was mumbling incoherently. “If it’s any consolation, you did a far better job than your father.â€

 

Clarissa regarded Lukel’s corpse. “Unsurprising. It takes too much effort to turn up anything worse.â€

 

Blackburn’s eyes flicked in the same direction, then, returned to the bottom of the mountain.

 

“They haven’t been resuming their assault,†he observed.

 

“We probably have the weather to thank for that. Mount Thalmaris is treacherous enough to climb even in spring, let alone during a killer mid-winter storm.†Digging her nails into her palm until they drew blood, she added “Though once the wind dies down, we will be trading fresh bodies for mangled ones again.â€

 

The archer grunted in acknowledgement.

 

Taking one last look at the sky, Clarissa was contented with her approximation that the next battle wouldn’t take place for at least another ten minutes going by how things looked. She ordered the men to make a steady, ordered withdrawal back to their original positions, their front still facing the mouth of the cave.

 

Abruptly, another boulder was hurled into the cave, too sudden and too fast for anyone to even consider moving out of its trajectory. However, it failed to collide with a single target, instead coming to a stop near the western shelf with a wet and sickly crunch.

 

Clarissa breathed a sigh of relief just as a strange, stinging sensation washed over her.

 

A thought chose then to spring to her mind.

 

Since when did giant rocks make a wet and sickly crunch when they shattered?

 

She snapped her head around just as the dust and debris cleared, but before Clarissa could draw a breath to alarm the rest, a spherical creature flung itself high into the air, its features sliding into view in the diminishing, flickering torchlight. Vast, otherworldly and loathsome, the monster was a screaming, writhing patchwork: a hideous, warped agglomeration of many faces stitched into one gigantic head, twisting and melding into a grotesque parody of a smile. It was not in possession of any feature that could be labeled eyes within its sockets, but spotted two pools of spiraling darkness brimming with the thick, black miasma she had seen earlier. By the time she recognized her mother, step-mother and step-brother among the faces that formed its body, Clarissa thought she went mad then.

 

The monster’s grin became unnervingly broader, showing to the rest of the world its grotesque collection of deformed, rotten teeth. Like tombstones erected over an ancient graveyard. She could hear a noise being constantly made within its cavity, as if some immense slippery body was lumbering against it. Then, the thing opened its mouth and started to retch.

 

Her mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, could still recognize the hundreds of wretched creatures that she had spent the last few days running from pouring out of the endless abyss within. They came into being right behind the ranks of her soldiers, and though the ones capable of flying immediately went for the archers stationed on the high ground, the rest of the horde descended deeper into the cave.

 

Right to where the refugees were.

 

Her mind frozen with fear, Clarissa found it impossible to move even her legs, as if they were someone else’s possession and not hers. Up ahead, some sort of creature with bat-like wings pulled out her father’s entrails with its multiple beaks, having relieved him of his eyeballs as if it was showing the old man some mercy in taking away his sight. She vaguely recollected being pulled down to the ground by Blackburn who, in his haste to save the girl he had known for nearly two decades of her life, lost a chunk of his shoulder to a lunging serpent that was going for her head. Shaking free from momentum by twisting its ebony body that was well over fifty feet in length, the creature re-launched itself at the fallen figures on the floor like a length of spring decompressing.

 

It was over. There was nowhere else to run.

 

She did not shriek, but Clarissa could feel all the condemned souls that shared their final moments within the cave shrieked in her stead as in that same second, a gleaming zweihander crashed into the wall directly to her left, its tip burrowing deep into the rock formation. Stupefied, she watched as momentum sent the entire monster into the weapon’s edge, neatly separating its fanged head into two uneven halves with as much ease as sharp knife going through warm butter. It blood splattered on her face and all over her clothes, red, slimy and noxious.

 

From the other side of the bloodbath, a lone figure stood, unhinged by the chaos surrounding him, arm still outstretched from the throw. He donned a nearly seven foot tall suit of pitch-black plate armor drenched with rainwater and snow, his expression fully concealed by a rustic helmet that featured little more than a thinly carved eye-slit. His other fist went up in a celebratory gesture at the sight of his blade hitting its target.

 

Still wordlessly, the knight walked over to retrieve the weapon and – with the monster’s carcass lodged to its blade – tossed it at the floating head with a broad swing provocatively.

 

“Who are you?†she asked in shock.

 

“A big damn hero, milady,†he made a courteous bow before flourishing his blade at an approaching group of monsters.

 

A mountain of meat and muscle swung its gigantic arm at him, and the knight met its forearm with his own, swaying back gently at the crushing impact. With a single simple, ruthlessly efficient motion, he sliced its head clean off the shoulders. Another monster used the opportunity to leap over its fallen comrade and brought its fiery talons down on his helmet, the impact sending off a shower of scarlet sparks. He staggered back from the blow, then with a grunt of annoyance rather than pain, grabbed the creature by its hind leg and threw it on the ground before stepping on its head, drawing a loud pop as its eye balls were squeezed out of their sockets. Unburdened, his blade moved in graceful, deceptively lazy-looking arcs, gutting through the hardened carapaces of a beetle-like creature possessing a woman’s body for its abdomen with almost contemptuous ease, then sheared off a quarter of the skull of an extremely obese man whose torso had merged with a pinwheel, his facial features twisted and profaned.

 

Clarissa witnessed the fight, awestruck. The knight in black never slowed down for a fraction of the fight, even when the odds were obviously stacked against him. A quick twist to the side saw his body just mere inches away from being mauled by a bipedal three-headed hound, followed by a sideway slash that reduced its limbs to one-half their original count. His feet carried themselves in deft, agile and nimble motions which did not match the apparent weight of both armor and armament, his blade flashing, parrying, killing. No injury he made was non-fatal, and when struck by his sword, the monsters simply dropped down while sprouting a shower of gore.

 

Perhaps strangest of all was the fact that when confronted by him, few of the smaller monsters committed themselves to one single action that she had never seen nor expected from them.

 

Fleeing.

 

In the span of one or two minutes, he had the blood of at least a score of dead monsters on his hand, left a dozen limbless ones on the side for them to slowly bleed to death, and kicked yet another creature toward the inverted floating head’s direction in the sky. It reacted violently this time, and from the monster came a piercing sound – a shriek that blended the sound of tearing metal and wounded beasts, a chthonic noise that forced into her ears and tore her frayed nerves, one that filled Clarissa with an overwhelming, almost instinctive, desire to run away, taking her chance against the raging storm outside rather than staying for another second.

 

Hovering above the ground, thick, muscular hooves bashed their way out of the monster’s scalp, providing the creature with an outlandish mean of locomotion. The inverted face-mass lumbered toward the knight, razor-spined orifices distending and resealing themselves with every movement of the being’s twisted muscles. A disembodied eye popped from the creature’s mouth hole, lolling about upon a sinewy strand of gristle. It looked down upon him from above as the compound-faceted iris split open like an unfolding lotus, revealing a great spear-shaped proboscis within.

 

The organic, bloodied lance ripped through the air, only to meet the steel blade in a cold, clear chime. A cloud of sparks rained down where the two clashed, and after a scant pair of heartbeats, the battle resumed with greater and speedier lethality. Repeatedly, the monster bore down with its sharpened tip, but its opponent was able to deflect every single blow, sometimes with his blade, other times with his vambraces.

 

Clarissa had been invited to Aedowin’s summer festival twice in her life, where she was given front-row seat to the tournament, spectating upon gladiators who fought with blood and steel for the prestigious golden garland. Brought into perspective by the clashing titans in front of her very eyes, and those combatants might as well had been mongrels fighting over a scrap of discarded food.

 

The knight jumped up to avoid a low sweep and tersely struck the shaft of the appendage with his pommel. The monster kept him from pushing forward with another wide, reaching arc of its weapon, its length forcing him to maintain a safe distance.

 

He can’t do this alone, thought Clarissa. The knight would definitely triumph in a contest of speed and decision-making, but his opponent was inhumanly strong and had the advantage of endurance. Deciding to be reckless, he launched into the air, falling feet-first toward where the inverted gigantic head’s neck would be, perhaps hoping to cleave it into half. The monster didn’t hesitate to attempt a swift overhead swing, and he parried the blow with his blade, the impact sending the rest of him crashing into a nearby wall.

 

 Then an idea occurred to her.

 

“Blackburn, can you hear me?†she called to the archer. The wound on his injured left shoulder was not deep enough to reach his heart, but his favored arm was now connected to his torso with just a few thin stretches of cartilage.

 

“Y…yeah,†he answered weakly.

 

“Someone is here to save us. We can finally go home after this, so don’t die on me old man.†She took in a deep breath, then pushed her body for another round of healing, feeling so very cold and muddled when the usual robust cloud of light came out as little more than a few diminutive puffs.

 

Out of the corner of her eyes, the knight snapped his head back at Clarissa for a fraction of a second.

 

“Huh…so a miracle did happen,†came a relieved smile from Blackburn.

 

“Told you. But before that, I need something. Do you happen to have any spare stone right now?†ask me Clarissa.

 

The old man grunted and nodded, slipping his fingers into one of the pouches on his belt. Meanwhile, Clarissa pillowed his head with her lap so as to ease his pose into something less painful, cursing herself for having lost sight of the bandage roll after she was done with it earlier. After the unsuccessful rummaging of his first two pockets, Blackburn managed to give her his spare ones, though as luck would have it the sigil showed those runestones to be the supporting type used in heavy archery, not explosive.

 

Whispering a quick thank, she unsheathed her carving dagger and went to work on modifying them, occasionally shooting a quick glance toward the knight’s direction.

 

He landed in a crouch, stopping himself by planting the sword into the ground, then swung at the throbbing gristle. With both hands on the hilt, he hit with a lightning-fast blow that lodged the blade deep into the veined tissue, yet lacking the strength to wholly sever it. Seeing no other way out, he let go of the blade and placed a foot on the monster’s tumorous skin, trying to rob the face-mass of its balance before it could renew the assault, only for his greave to sink into flesh as if stepping on quicksand.

 

The mistake cost him dearly, as moments later, the lance-like protrusion skewered through his armored form.

 

“Hrgk…†The knight muttered incoherently as the monster carried him to its mouth like a grape being pierced by a fruit fork, its jagged teeth clattering hungrily, a guillotine dancing in anticipation of its newest victim.

 

Just as its jowl came crashing down upon the armor, jerking his body like a stringed marionette that was yanked too hard, a small rock arced through the air toward the monster. It fell near the thing’s left hoof, then without any further warning, exploded in a deafening burst of air and sound, sending countless fragments of itself flying in every direction. The blast wasn’t enough to topple the creature, owing to the former’s dispersed pattern and the latter’s size, though it was enough to startle the thing into lashing its tongue like a bullwhip, throwing its latest victim high into the air. Clarissa winced when he crashed headfirst next to her.

 

He lied motionlessly for a few seconds.

 

“Are you alright?†she asked in a whisper, not moving from her position for fear of injuring Blackburn any further.

 

 â€œS’okay…My bruises broke my fall,†he answered at last, springing back up to his feet with remarkable spryness for someone whose chest Clarissa could fit her whole arm through with room to spare. With the helmet and gorget partially broken by the fall, she could see part of the man beneath as a pair of narrowed eyes that, against the low visibility background, glowed with a baleful, demonic red. What piqued her curiosity, however, was the fact that there was virtually no blood seeping out from his rupturing, if not mortal, injury.

 

It was getting incredibly hard to tell exactly which one of them was the bigger monster.

 

“Miss, those explosive force runes you have there,†he asked, “can the blast be made more powerful?â€

 

“Yes and no. Well, technically…yes, but there’s no point in doing so. Too strong an explosion will just turn the whole thing into powder, too light and small to cause any damage.†Based on how loud the previous blast was, she estimated that at least half of the stored energy was forcefully converted to sound, lacking a means to release itself from the sigil’s binding. Such was the reason why she had proposed using the heat rune during the previous fight, as there was no real need for the runic fragments to act as a makeshift form of shrapnel for the combustion process.

 

The knight looked thoughtful for a moment, then proffered a hand at her. “May I have the rest of them?â€

 

She looked at the floating head apprehensively before turning to him. “There is a group of these things heading for the civilian further into this cavern. Can you save them first?â€

 

He shook his head. “All the more reason to finish this thing off as soon as possible.â€

 

Taking the remaining runestone, he broke into a sprint toward the creature, side-stepping to avoid a vertical slice from its tentacle, the sharp tip carving a small chasm on the rocky ground.

 

Shaking off the few debris that came flying, he waited until the last moment, then grabbed the organic spear with his free hand, zipping through the air when the creature retracted its impressively prehensile tongue. Taken off-guard, the monster had just enough time to spot the daredevil, force runestones pressed against his chest with one hand, landing feet first on the upper row of decaying teeth, driving it into the ground.

 

Jamming his sword in between the thing’s mouth to stop it from closing, the knight shoved the entire ammunition dump inside. The runes were rigged to blow up previously, and thus when they touched flesh, triggered an explosive chain reaction that destroyed a great deal of their current container.

 

The blast scattered the miasma stored within the creature’s eyes. Both monster and slayer disappeared within the dark haze that came to fill the entire cave.

 

“Guy is bloody insane,†commented Blackburn, too shocked to mind his own wound.

 

“Where is he?†Clarissa whispered as the silhouette of an alive, but badly mauled monster could be discerned climbing from the debris, its mouth deformed beyond recognition and its skin oozing red blood from numerous wounds. 

 

She was the first to see what happened next.

 

Through an inhuman feat of strength coupled with the explosions, the knight was now right below the cavern’s ceiling, which soared for nearly half a thousand feet from the ground. He kicked against the surface, performing a tuck and roll to master his tumble before once again drawing his greatsword. Diving from the sky like a hunting eagle, he was directly above the confused and disoriented monster and plummeting through the buffeting air current at breakneck speed.

 

He hit the monster like the hammer of the Maker, its first and last warning came a split second before the impact when his armored form ripped the sound from the wind. The blade cleaved right through the creature’s body, severing the thickened gristle and slamming into the earth below, where momentum tore it away from its owner. His hands freed, he spun and grabbed hold of some of the creature’s flesh, which shredded under the exchange of inertia.

 

He crashed hard into the ground, forming a small crater with his armored body, though his gauntlets held onto the creature until the end and bled some of the damage into it by dragging it along, the off-center impact causing them to be flipped across the terrain like ragdolls that came to a terminal collision with the cave side a long stretch away.

 

His previous wound was flowing with viscous, darkened blood now, and even to someone with limited experience in the practice of medicine, it was plain as day that no one could have survived losing so much blood, let alone the shock afterward. Yet against all odds and limitations nature placed upon the living, the knight stood up once more.

 

The battlefield turned upside down from his actions.

 

Almost instantaneously, every being nearby ceased their fighting at the conclusion of the epic struggle. From the wreckage where it had landed, the face-mass squealed - its thousand visages shrieking in an otherworldly dissonance - making a gurgling, aquatic sound in terror before dissolving into a large puddle of flesh, blood and bone. Throughout the cavern, airborne monstrosities dropped to the ground while the rest of them thrashed in agony, eventually and inexplicably joining their giant master’s demise in the same fashion. The pervasive coppery malodor of blood and rotten stench from their lingering carcasses turned the air almost unbreathable.

 

In the distance, the vanquisher of monsters groaned something, though due to the vast ground to cover between them, Clarissa could only make out the last few words that he spoke in between wet laughter.

 

“Hell yeah...dashing daredevil Inquisitor, one...ugly ass abomination, zero...â€

 

Then he collapsed.

 

It was half an hour before she could detect a faint hint of heartbeat within his chest, and two more before it started to drum in a steady fashion. In a way, her head should have imploded from witnessing the entire process thereafter, but having survived all the events that transpired within the last few days, Clarissa simply didn’t have the capacity for surprise anymore.

 

At the first sign of his eyes fluttering opened, the knight asked for food and water, explaining that he had gone on an empty stomach for nearly two moons straight. Though for some bizarre reason, he insisted on having the spoiled venison, stale loaves of bread and rotten apples that had gone bad from the humidity inside the cave. When asked about it, he simply shrugged and said that the refugees could use the fresher supply for the rest of their trip, assuring Clarissa that he had eaten far worse things.

 

Clarissa chose not to comment on the fact that he ate a barrel of fruits, half a cow worth of meat and drank enough water to fill a small pond. She also told herself repeatedly that no, he didn’t still seem hungry even after his meal. No, the hole in his chest didn’t appear a lot smaller than when she first saw it. No, he wasn’t some sort of monster disguised as human who used his timely intervention as a ruse to eat them all in their sleep. No, no and no.

 

Blackburn was administered the best treatment available, but given the severe nature of his injury, there was little doubt that the old archer had fired his last arrow. He accepted the news with little difficulty, agreeing that he had done enough fighting to last a lifetime, then gathered his wife and daughter into his uninjured arm. They nestled together closely, finding warmth in each other’s company, just like in the happily ever after epilogue so common in stories and so rare in the real world

 

Or at least, that was what it would have looked like had it not been for the wailing and crying in the background. The few healthy soldiers she had left labored feverishly, dragging the injured and dead back from the entrance, where they were sorted into two categories by the few doctors among the refugees. First came the wounded, where bundles of healing herbs, restorative draught, bandages and tourniquets were the only thing between them and Death’s icy touch, preserving what little of life left in them until more medical supplies could be gathered at the apothecary. Immediate treatment was necessary, for they would be escorting the entire group back come dawn.

 

The other group held the deceased, intact or not. Casualty for the last battle was in excess of two scores men, all of whom fought because they had wizened parents, longing wives and innocent children behind their back. Now fathers carried their sons on their way to the pyre, widows made cairns for their husbands whose bodies no one could collect enough to identify and children cried wondering why they couldn’t see their fathers one more time. The monsters never got to them thanks to the mysterious knight’s intervention, yet looking at the grieving survivors, Clarissa couldn’t help but wondered if some of them actually wished to join their loved ones in death.

 

“Baroness,†a voice addressed her from behind.

 

Clarissa looked back to lock eyes with the mysterious knight. He had discarded the plate armor, which was reduced to a lump of disfigured metal after the fall, and was wearing a given set of light leather jerkin and hosen that once belonged to the late Baron.

 

In life, Robert Callaghan was an overweight man brought about by his love for fine dining and hatred for sports. Thusly even with the knight’s stature, the clothing looked two sizes too big, prompting him to wear his shirt unbuttoned like an overcoat, revealing his bandaged and bruised chest.

 

She didn’t pay much attention to it back then, but pitted him against Clarissa, and one would have an interesting study in contrast. Whereas she was five foot eight in height and slightly plump in a pampered princess sort of manner, he was a head taller than her and possessed impressive, but not overdone, musculature. Where she had white, pale skin typical of any girl living in the temperate land of Varelish, his was the warm, tanned looks of someone who hailed from the southern part of the Antiquan Continent. And where she had blond hair and blue eyes, his hair was as red as fire, which stuck up and swayed in the wind, giving the impression that someone had set his head aflame. The knight looked to be in his early twenties: young, but unnaturally so.

 

“You mistook me. It was my father who ruled Callaghan keep.†Clarissa answered. She didn’t expect how easy it was to already talk about her last family member in past tense.

 

The knight stepped up and looked around, his eyes lingering on a group of people pulling the carts to the back of the cave and started piling them up with whatever that could pass for supplies and ration.

 

The rain had stopped at last. The reek of blood and evil mixed with the scents of sweat and leather and steel. A haze of wood smoke, burnt flesh, and incense hung in the morning air, as the sodden pyres slowly consumed their dead. The monsters’ remnants were being hauled into a huge pile at some distance away. They too would be burned, and the ashes and charred bones afterward would be discarded down the mountain slope.

 

The people of Callaghan had come out triumphant, though it would seem a pyrrhic victory lent little incentive toward a celebration.   

 

“With the Baron's passing and you being his sole heir, it’s just a matter of time,†he said, a grimace tugging down his lips. “I am sorry for your losses, for whatever that’s worth.â€

 

“We were never much of a family to begin with. There is no reason you should be, and certainly no reason to make an issue out of it,†she answered thickly. It seemed to drain her body physically and mentally just to choke out the words.

 

He gave her a questioning look. “Everyone mourns for her loved ones, Baroness. There is no need…â€

 

Clarissa gestured as if cutting the air with the side of her hand. “What, then? Should I break down, weep and tear my hair apart? Curse the Maker and His Crusaders for not being here? Take my own life out of grievance? No. Save that cheap drama for the minstrels and the troubadours.†She looked away from him, rubbing the bridge her nose. “I do not need to garner your sympathy, Ser Knight, but I greatly appreciate your concern as well as your assistance. Right now, there is something we need to discuss. It is best that we leave behind the past and focus on the present.â€

 

With him following closely behind, Clarissa walked into the large and freshly painted war tent of the Callaghan House, which was at the moment the only thing akin to homecoming. Robert had prepared well for such an occasion where he was forced to abandon his home and had brought it with him, along with the surviving vassals and their baggage train. A candle on the trestle table flickered, casting wild shadows on the inside of the tent, illuminating its – by the standard of a woman on a run – lavish decor. There was an oaken bookshelf linked to a wardrobe filled with ostentatious garments in one corner of the place, and opposing it were a twin pair of travelling beds covered in white silken blankets. A small table situated itself in the space between, beneath which a large crimson rug with golden embroidery lay upon the ground.

 

Robert’s travelling chest was still here, and so was Lukel’s, as if nothing had happened to their owners. Here was a place where all was right with the world. Clarissa noted this with a hint of melancholy.

 

The tent guard was a man she knew by name – Lester, son of a farmer from a freehold not far from Callaghan Keep. He had shouted a welcome at the sight of Clarissa and the knight approaching, and soon after being instructed in short, terse sentences about what he should do, the guard saluted and left both of them alone.

 

“This is most curious,†mused the knight as he pushed aside the tent flap.

 

“What is?†asked Clarissa. She unfolded a wooden chair nearby, sank onto it, and gestured for him to sit anywhere.

 

“Going by the signs, I was under the impression that the Baron made an impromptu decision to evacuate everyone from the Keep when it was attacked. But all these tents, field rations and supplies? Why, I have seen armies marching half as prepared.â€

 

Clarissa gave him a tired look. “You are not from around these parts, I take it?â€

 

“Not really,†he smiled sheepishly. “I’ve been in the area once or twice. But before that I was born and raised in Relegast myself.â€

 

That’s half the continent away. “Well, in case you haven’t noticed this is the land of Varelish, the very end the continent. Every living soul here is fortunate enough to be within eyeshot of the Northern Wall and close enough to the estuary that an invading army from Zakira could reach us in a single march.â€

 

Clarissa collected a quill and a map nearby to encircle the landmarks’ relative position, including Mount Thalmaris, where they were taking refuge. “With neighbors like these, wouldn’t you say it would be foolhardy of us not to consider and prepare for the worst case scenario?â€

 

The knight surveyed the parchment and nodded mostly to himself. “I suppose there is a good reason as to why you didn’t seek asylum from Aedowin? If memory serves, Callaghan is part of the duchy, is it not?â€

 

She maintained a neutral expression, arms crossing beneath her chest. “That’s how it looks on papers. In reality, the Duke couldn’t care less about whether we live or die. Rather, I would be expecting the old man to throw a banquet once the news of our keep being overran reaches him.â€

 

The knight rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm yes, I can see why,†he said, finger pointing at a labeled runestone mine a few miles to the south of her now ruined kingdom. “Callaghan is of little strategic importance, but this little treasure trove over here falls within its jurisdiction. The way things stand, only a fraction of the profit goes to the Duke as the monthly tribute.â€

 

He traced a line toward the keep, then the duchy to the west. “But as soon as the middle man is gone, he will be able to cite your allegiance pact as an excuse to legitimately hoard the whole business for himself.â€

 

“That’s about the gist of it,†she said. “Had we relied on him for aid, the Duke would have merely closed his gates and trapped us out, claiming to act in the best interest of his own people. Though this particular tidbit of information is not known among many. Hence why our family was willing to keep up the false display of protection offered by the Duke and his army.â€

 

“And as long as you abide by the pact, he will have no excuse to go on the offensive against your people. Fascinating,†he said.

 

Something is wrong, Clarissa thought. This man claims to have little familiarity with the land, yet is aware of an allegiance a minor keep made decades ago, right down to the nuances at work. Even the soldiers from Callaghan had difficulty recalling which Duke’s summon were they obliged to answer. Adding that to his abnormal constitution…I will have to get him talking somehow, if just long enough to ascertain his identity and intention.

 

Still wearing her emotionless mask, she gestured at his wound. “But where are my manners. I must be boring you to sleep with politics while there are more pressing concerns. How are your injuries feeling?â€

 

He scratched his head, smiling. “You are too kind. It’s nothing a meal and a good rest can’t fix.â€

 

“Remarkable, considering I examined and declared you dead myself a few hours ago. Did you know that the monster’s attack—â€

 

“Abomination.â€

 

“Pardon?â€

 

“Those things earlier were called abominations,†he corrected her.

 

“There is a difference?â€

 

“Abominations eat monsters for food and occasionally hunt them for sport.â€

 

“Suit yourself,†she said dryly, rolling her eyes at his syntactic insistence. “As I was saying, the abomination’s attack removed a significant portion of your heart and your entire left lung. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a medical expert, but generally humans have been observed to drop down and die from injuries half as severe.â€

 

His expression remained unfazed by the revelation.

 

She leaned forward, her head resting on one hand. “Yet here we are, conversing so casually with each other. What say you to that?â€

 

He thought, or at least appeared to be pondering, long and hard about it. “That you aren’t very good at giving medical diagnosis?â€

 

Clarissa frowned.

 

The knight grinned.

 

“You are not human, are you?†she asked at last.

 

“Well if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck,†he answered jovially. “What else could it possibly be?â€

 

“Something doing a very good job at pretending to be a duck?â€

 

“You suck at philosophy.†He laughed at the apparent humor in that statement, but turned serious soon after when it was clear the Clarissa hadn’t meant for her reply to be a joke. “Very well, it’s as you said. I’m quite indeed something far less than human-†he admitted. Clarissa noticed those hellish pupils finally returned to his eyes, crimson and aglow with menace. “But at the same time, also something far more. But where are my manners, my name is Garland Ascalon of the Inquisition Order. We are a group of wetwork specialists created and charged by his Royal Highness Kaine Leorius Valoreign, the Alchemist King, with the task of purging heretics, abominations and rogue mages from the continent. And I am here today, on behalf of my lord and my brethren, to formally request High Lady Clarissa Callaghan ap Varelish to join us in our holy crusade.â€

"You are a Cross Crusader?" she asked, apprehensive.

"Not quite," he explained. "The Crusaders mostly deal with internal strife and invasions from other kingdoms, but I do believe the majority of them are virgins when it comes to supernatural affairs. So if there is any spooky stuff going on, people like us get called in instead." Garland stopped to consider something. "We get the same paycheck though, and I think they have a few extra days of paid leave as compared to us, but our department gets carte blanche, so that's pretty sweet."

 

"Carte blanche." Clarissa repeated, her brows narrowing. "That's not some vocabulary you expect to hear from a soldier."

 

Garland nodded vigorously. "Inquisitor Rosemary told me to use exquisite and foreign words I don't normally use to impress noble folks when I converse with them, so as to make myself more prismatic." He paused. "Wait...or was it...charismatic?"

 

Clarissa regarded his mollified expression with a slight hint of amusement for a moment, then shook her head. “In any case, thank you for your kind invitation, but I will have to humbly decline. For starter, I'm hardly what you would consider combat material, and I'm afraid I have enough on my plate tending to my people at the moment.â€

 

He looked up, as if already expecting her answer to be so. “Oh, which is exactly why I have made you an offer you can’t refuse,†Garland answered with a Cheshire grin.

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Chapter II: Garland


When they gave him the cross-shaped medallion, they gave Garland a job. Seek monsters, rogue mages, abominations, paranormal entities, heretics, criminals, enemies of the Alchemist King across the land. Track them, find them, kill them. It was cut and dry efficiency: there was to be no question asked, no claim of innocence entertained, and above all else, failure was never an option. Inquisitors had preys, while soldiers had enemies, because in the latter's line of work, it was an acceptable outcome for soldiers to sometimes lose.

This was supposed to be a simple job at first. Archivists were given reports of monster sightings all across the land of Varelish. Yanked away from sleep's sweet embrace by a courier, Garland was summoned to the royal court in the dead of the night as a result. They gave him a terse report on the situation and a deadline of three days to bring order back to the region. From the recount, Raiha had expected some kind of undead army led by a Lich-wannabe.


He never thought he would find himself pitted against a horde of abominations sent forth from the deepest depth of the Abyss, much less for a fragment of Shoggoth to show itself in a fight against the Inquisitor.

But most of all? He never did anticipate what kind of meeting fate had in store for him.


All things considered, Inquisitor Garland had taken quite a liking to Clarissa.

She possessed the look and air of a noblewoman, yet lacking the haughtiness so closely associated with the aristocrats he had had the pleasure to be acquainted with thus far. After the battle, when he was just barely conscious and was slipping in and out of death’s door, confusing the hell out of the Grim Reaper, Garland could recall seeing Clarissa moving around the camp restlessly in spite of her own wounds and fatigue. Her attention divided between giving the exhausted soldiers food and water, assigning the healers their tasks, consoling the survivors and periodically checking in on him.

The farmers, merchants and soldiers of Callaghan all loved her to death. They raised mugs of ale to the Baroness’ good health and proclaimed their willingness to follow her to the end of the world. Admittedly, he was a little amused by the fact that either the people at the frontline had been too occupied with fighting, or in their haste to make a messiah out of her, had completely left out his part in their recount of the fight. Amused, but not confused, for one always had to be a bit of a liar to tell a good story. In the end, it was having done something right that was important to him, not who learned about and recounted his deeds.

Not that credit wasn’t entirely where it was due. After all, she did get the majority of the refugees this far while making a proper fighting force out of a ragtag bunch of misfits that had seen peace for two decades straight. A born leader, a skilled runecrafter and, with her healing power that could bring an injured man back on his feet, a miracle maker. What was there of her for anyone, or for him, to dislike?


He idly pondered how differently would these people react if they were to found out the Baroness herself was the only reason why calamity had befallen them.

“I saw Callaghan Keep on my way here. What was left of it anyway,†Garland explained calmly, taking a seat next to Clarissa, rotating it so that his arms could rest on the back. “Its walls are nothing but debris and rubbles, the buildings are razed to the ground, ghouls from a nearby necropolis now roam the streets, fighting over the corpses of the abomination’s first victims. Most of your crops are rotting from being exposed to the dark miasma exuded by the horde, what people in the know normally call the Corruption, so I wouldn’t feed my worst enemy the few plants that survived.â€

Clarissa nodded in quiet acknowledgement of the information and regarded her father’s financial ledger. The young baroness took a deep breath and blew it out again, closing her eyes for a moment.

“You will need money, a lot of it I suspect, to repair the keep and to purchase food, medical supplies, clothing for the upcoming winter. No Principality, Dukedom or Fiefdom in its right mind would give a small Keep that much support. They would expect your patron and protector-†Garland drew an air quote with his fingers. “-Duke Aedowin, to offer you support instead.â€

“And he would be far too pleased to see that my people and I wither away from the cold and the hunger,†she finished his observation. Her eyes opened again, staring ahead. “So my only way out is to seek help from elsewhere. An order with carte blanche on its operating fund, for example. This is what you meant by an offer I can’t refuse.â€

Garland licked his lips. “If I could, I would offer the people of Callaghan whatever support I can get. That amounts to the five copper in my pocket, by the way. I can’t simply arrange for a small treasury’s worth of gold to be dropped smack dab in the middle of the Keep without a valid reason. Even being an Inquisitor myself, I’m just a low level grub given the mushroom treatment by the old geezers in the grand scheme of things.â€

Clarissa gave him a questioning glance. “The mushroom treatment?â€

“Kept in the dark and fed bullshit,†he stated it nonchalantly.

That seemed to surprise the Baroness so much, it drew a chuckle from her. Nailed it, Garland, the Inquisitor thought and silently congratulating himself on how much charisma he must be oozing by now in her eyes.

There was a moment of contemplative silence. “Say I agree to join the Inquisition, how would that change my situation?â€

“Well, then I can afford to coordinate a more sizable donation from the royal vault and hopefully convince my bosses that this amount of initial investment is nothing compared to what we will get in return,†he answered.

“But why me?†she asked. “What is it exactly that you are getting in return by recruiting a woman who knows next to nothing about the matters of the Inquisition?â€

“Tell me, Clarissa,†Garland said, leaning forward with interest. “Do you realize what you just showed me today? What exactly did you do to the heat runestone before passing it to the archer so that he could immolate the abomination’s spawn?â€

“I modified it, made it such that the thermal energy stored within is released at once instead of a steady stream. You can get a thermal explosion if you get it to work.â€

“Very good,†Garland nodded. “And that, milady, means you have aptitude in one of the eight fundamental schools of magic. Enchantment, to be precise. You see, not any fella with a chisel could have accomplished quite the same feat. Simply erasing and adding lines to a runestone would render it inert, what you need is to pour a measure of will into it, to jumpstart the magical array in a way.â€

“My mentor Mekal taught me as much. But she also said that there are journeyman rune carvers in the city who could create far more sophisticated setups than what I was struggling to make,†she said.

Garland tried to raise an eyebrow. However, the Inquisitor had never quite mastered the art of lifting only one of his brows while locking the other in place, so the overall effect was that he just looked very surprised at her statement.

“What is that look all about?†Clarissa voiced her concern.

He stopped trying. “Nothing. Then what about when your archer’s arm was removed from the shoulder by one of the abominations. What did you do then?â€

“I used my Talent,†she said quietly. “It’s something that I developed since young. I can mend wounds and ease pain with it.â€

“Truly fascinating,†Garland exclaimed. “Do you mind demonstrating it to me again right here?â€

Clarissa frowned. “You don’t look that injured to me anymore.†Her eyes moved over to his chest, where the abomination from earlier had dug a massive tunnel through. It had healed completely.

Garland reached out to grab a letter opener from nearby, then planted the tip into his forearm and dragged in the direction of his shoulder, drawing a long, thin line of red on his skin. He wiped away the blood with the sleeve of his shirt, then returned it to the table. “Now I am. Do you mind giving it another try?â€

The Baroness looked incredibly weird out by his action, but chose not to make any remark about it as she got to working on the cut. First she inspected its depth and length, murmuring something too hushed and fast for him to hear. Then her palm hovered on top of it, so close he could feel her skin brushing against the hair on his forearm.
Shimmering golden particles leaped away from her outstretched hand and flowed steadily into the wound. They gathered up the few drops of blood pulled by gravity onto the floor and gently guided them back to where they came from, gradually knitting the torn flesh in the reverse direction Garland had cut himself, as if he was being patched by an invisible length of surgical suture. Clarissa sagged back into her chair when she was done, gesturing. “There, done. Did I pass the test?â€

The Inquisitor regarded his arm with a fierce grin. “I knew I wasn't imagining it!â€

“Mekal also told me stories of healers who could do the same thing. They can mend a broken spine or a severed limb even without the missing part if I recall correctly,†she answered and regarded him with narrowed, dubious eyes. “Still yet to see why you are so insistent, Inquisitor.â€

“The thing is, Clarissa, the healers your Mentor spoke of and the rune carvers you mentioned earlier? Ninety nine point nine percent of the time, they are two mutually exclusive groups of people,†Garland explained in his excitement. “What you just accomplished was magic from a completely different branch. Abjuration, to be precise.

Most wizards and witches only have affinity to a single domain of magic. You can find one of them in…I can’t remember- oh, every ten thousand people, as rare as a five leaf clover. We have yet to reach a consensus on how exactly individuals gifted with magical abilities come into being, but the most prevalent theory so far is some kind of recessive genes passed down the bloodline. Do you know any member of your family who might fit the bill?â€

“I don’t think so,†Clarissa admitted. “My grandparents passed away before I was born, and I don’t think I have seen my parents doing anything special their whole lives…†She suddenly trailed off, her eyelids fluttering uncertainly. “In fact, my father was quite convinced that my Talent was a curse given by the devil.â€

Garland stuck out his tongue. “Yeah, sounds legit. If a devil wants you to deliver people from suffering, he would have given you a far more direct means, like a fireball or something. In any case, someone up there in your family tree must have been a practitioner, and he left an amazing gift for you, his descendant, without the both of you ever meeting each other. How cool is that?â€

“So I’m one of these witches you mentioned?â€

The Inquisitor shook his head. “Even better. See, witches and wizards are born with power in a single domain, and this remains the case until they die. You have shown me you are capable of two. And with magic where everything is either go big or go home, this can only mean you have access to all eight domains of magic. You, Clarissa, are what we call a sorceress, which is a phenomenally rare occurrence even amongst our kinds. Hell's bell, I’m one of the few guys they put in charge of regulating the supernatural stuff, and my whole life I have met only two sorcerers.â€

Somehow, the air in the room stilled. Silent. Clarissa regarded Garland with round, even somewhat flabbergasted eyes. Eventually, she answered him. “I have heard the legend, but only in bedtime stories and drunken tales."

"You can't have smoke without a fire going on in the first place," he pointed out.

"I suppose you have a fair point," she replied, nodding. "Still find it hard to wrap my head around this whole sorceress deal, though.â€

Garland grinned and gestured his hands in a theatrical manner. “Simply put, it means that you would become an immensely powerful individual given the proper training. That you are gifted by the world to be a paragon of humanity against the threats both within and without. With great power comes great responsibility, et cetera et cetera you know? If you think being a Baroness is a title of wealth and influence, wait until you have seen what other sorcerers and sorceresses have accomplished throughout history. Last I checked, one of them now rule over the entire Antiquan.â€

“His Royal Highness is a sorcerer?†she asked. “I…this is a lot to take in all at once.â€

It took Garland every bit of restraint within him to not blurt out a "that's what she said" joke.

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