*Listen to the Audio*
Rugaba slammed his shield into the demonling as it launched itself toward him. He followed up by slapping it across the snout with the flat of his sword. It didn’t do any damage but it did exactly what he wanted. The demonling roared in fury, losing all sense to it’s attacks.. He blocked each wild scrape and bite, muttering words that activated the spells carved upon his reinforced armor and shield. Most of the creatures attacks scraped harmlessly against his steel. But one attack slipped through and left a large gash in his side. Ru gasped but held his defenses against the enraged creature.
“I’m on it!” Came a cry from behind him though he couldn’t tell which of their healers had spoken through the noise of the fight. A second later he felt his wound close and the pain subsided. The place where he had been wounded radiated energy now, pulsing through him with each beat of his heart. At the same instant a lance of wickedly cold ice shot past him and impaled his attacker against the wall. It wasn’t dead yet but it would be soon.
“Incoming!” Tophus shouted from further down the tunnel. More demonlings were barrelling down the hallway toward them. Tophus, with his tall shield, stood ready to meet them but he could not stop them all. If the demonlings got through, they could reach the other, more vulnerable magi. Rugaba shouted and another spell triggered, this one granting him more speed. He charged, pumping his legs hard. He closed the distance to Tophus in only a few great strides, reaching the other man just as the demonlings converged on him.
Now that he was beside Tophus, the demonlings would never get past them. The tunnel was unusually tall and skinny and these demonlings had no wings. Rugaba and Tophus fought together, mostly staying on the defensive, holding back the swarming demonlings and trusting their companions to slay them. What few wounds they took as they held their ground were quickly closed up and soothed away.
The magi behind them did their work well. Arrows laced with poisons flew over their heads. Those who were hit howled in pain as the flesh around the arrow became swollen and purple. Then a wave of chilly mist passed over them, leaving the two warriors untouched, but each demonling that came into contact with it was frozen in place for just a moment causing them to stumble and lurch as they lost their forward momentum. It eased the pressure against Rugaba and Tophus.
A puff of smoke blew past Rugaba and he felt a brief weight upon his shoulder as the acrobatic Krolis, miraged himself and launched from Rugaba’s shoulder over the heads of the unsuspecting demonlings. Rugaba could sense that he landed somewhere in their midst and his brow furrowed in worry. If Krolis got himself in trouble out there, they were unlikely going to be able to reach him very easily. His worry was short-lived though.
Krolis might be invisible to the eye but the damage he wrought was not. Demonlings howled as tendons were sliced, bellies cut, and arteries severed. Their reactions were still sluggish as they broke free from the ice encrusting mists so between his own invisibility and the mists, Krolis was relatively safe from their wild swipes.
The demonlings didn’t know their true danger though. Krolis dealt blows to them, yes, but he had also flung tiny darts into other demonlings out of his immediate reach. Rugaba knew what to look for and he noted which ones had been hit. They wouldn’t be a threat for much longer.
Then the puff of smoke blew past Rugaba again, indicating Krolis had returned to the safety of the group. But his work wasn’t finished for all the demonlings who had been hit with the darts suddenly went mad. They turned on one another attacking furiously, driven by wild fear.
Krolis had cast an illusion spell upon the stung demonlings. The darts carried a potent hallucinogen and it was no doubt being encouraged to move more quickly through the veins of the demonlings by the two life magi. Krolis could then tap into the hallucinogen and create more believable illusions for the demonlings without the spell affecting his own allies. Rugaba couldn’t see whatever it was the monsters were seeing but the spell was certainly effective.
At the same moment the illusion spell took effect, the rock walls in the hallway suddenly trembled and dozens of spikes emerged from the stone. They launched out at the demonlings, dealing a hundred more tiny wounds. The hall became slick with blood. Some of the spikes were imbedded in the demonling flesh while others smacked into the opposite wall and sunk down into the stone again.
Screeches filled the air and some of the demonlings began to turn and run.
“Stop them!” He barked. They couldn’t let the demonlings escape to warn their fellows.
“Down!” Shouted Cryan, his voice rich with the power of an impending spell. Rugaba and Tophus immediately dropped to a knee and crouched behind their shields. A blue barrier spell flickered to life around them, protecting them from magical energies. That was Toph’s work as the only shield mage of the group. Rugaba closed his eyes, guessing at what was coming. Sure enough, and even behind his closed eyelids, Rugaba could see the blinding, fiery form of a serpent that went crashing down the tunnel just ahead of him. It burned everything left still alive to a crisp.
“You should save the impressive stuff for the harder battles ahead,” Tophus said, standing and wrinkling his nose at the smell of charred flesh.
Cryan shrugged, grinning broadly at Tophus. “It stopped them all, no big.”
Cryan was a fire elementalist and he certainly looked the part, standing there with his eyes bright in the embered remains of his spell.
“Showoff,” Leetah said, but she was grinning too. Cryan raised a hand, palm out. Leetah was much shorter than Cryan but she wore slippers coated in ice that she formed into platformed heels. With those on, she was the same height as Cryan. Ru had no idea how she walked in them. Or fought in them. Leetah reached up her own hand and victory-slapped Cryan’s.
Tophus rolled his eyes and muttered, “Elementalists!” but only Rugaba was close enough to hear him. He chuckled and Tophus flashed him a wry smile.
“Laz?” Ru called out and Lazarus Lee stepped out from behind a pillar where he would have been out of sight of the demons but where he could still use his powers to benefit the group.
“This tunnel is clear,” Ru said, “Could you and Mereb scout the next one?”
Lazarus nodded, “Can do but it will take a little time.”
“That’s all right, we’ll rest a bit.”
As Lazarus and the archer, Mereb, began to pick their way around the smoldering remains of the demonlings, the group spread themselves around the small cavern to rest and check their gear. Rugaba sank down against a wall. He pulled a piece of dried meat from his pouch and began to munch on it. The life mages were good at what they did, healing wounds and providing energy but the healing still left him feeling hungry.
A few minutes later, Illyoten, one of the life mages came over and sat beside him. Ru realized he hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to the team’s newest recruit. Illyoten had joined the guild and been assigned to Ru’s team after Ru had already been dispatched to Gibraltar for this contract. The team had gathered what they needed and followed a few days later after him. Then when they arrived they had gotten straight to work.
“Nice job with the healing,” Ru said, “You been doing it long?”
“Thank you, yes,” Illyoten replied, “I’m a plainsman and trained with my tribe’s witchwoman since I was eight. I had a knack for healing.”
Ru nodded. It was always around that age that children began to manifest their talents, if they had any. Ru himself had been almost nine before his powers as a battle mage began to manifest. “A plainsmen huh? That’s pretty far to travel, what brought you here?”
“The same reason that most are coming. To gain power; to help rebuild after the war; for the bounty on demon slaying; for a chance at a different life; for the challenge of it all.” He shrugged and chuckled, “Take your pick. Most of that applies to me.”
“Did you fight in the war?” Ru asked.
“No,” Illyoten said. “I wanted to but I was serving as a liaison for my village in Merchant City when the final battle started up. I got stuck there when all available watercraft and portals were commandeered by the Merchant King’s army.”
“Couldn’t you join his army?”
Illyoten shook his head, “My people are very strong in their traditions. If I wished to join an army, I would have to leave the tribe. I can’t leave my tribe without performing certain rites and rituals, which could only be done at home.”
“Really?” Ru asked, raising an eyebrow.
Illyoten nodded, “Yes. Our tribe is very closely knit; physically and spiritually. Because of where and how we live it’s important for us to care for the roots that connect us to our tribe and our homeland. Severing that connection causes damaging ripple effects, so it is done as gently as possible through a ritual of farewell.”
“Is the land really so delicate?”
Illyoten chuckled, “Most lands, no. Our lands used to be a withered place with no roots and no life in it at all. We’ve nurtured and cared for it and it’s doing well but it will be another century or two before it will be as healthy and resilient as any other land.”
“I see,” said Rugaba. “Can you ever go back to your tribe?”
“Oh yes. Farewell rituals are not permanent, it’s just our way of preparing the land’s roots for my absence. Like kneading dough to make it stretch instead of tear.”
“Do you plan on going back?”
“Not anytime soon. My future isn’t with my village. I’m ready for something new.”
Ru grunted. He understood that feeling; the need to travel and make your own way in the world. They sat in companionable silence for a few moments then Illyoten spoke again.
“When travel was made available again I rushed home, performed the ritual and then went directly to Crossroads and from there to Faelamont. Your – our – leaders Rill and Bob put me on this team the same day I joined and sent us out.”
“Wow, that was quick,” Ru said, but he wasn’t really surprised. Life mages were nearly as scarce as source mages in Dreeibos right now.
Illyoten nodded, “But I’m afraid that because of my haste I know only rumors of what actually happened here. Did you fight in the war?”
“Yes,” Ru said with a grim nod, “Everyone here fought.”
Illyoten looked around at their guildmates and nodded. “If you are willing, would you tell me of it? Nothing specific,” He hastily added when Ru shifted uncomfortably. “I just want to know of events in general; how it all played out.”
Ru relaxed. He experienced many horrific things during the war that he would rather just forget. General events were easier to tell. He shrugged, “Sure I guess. Short version though, we’ll be moving again soon.”
“I appreciate it. I don’t like being the only one who doesn’t know a thing about what’s going on,” Illyoten said with a wry smile.
“Been there,” Ru said, matching his smile, “Done that.”
Rugaba leaned back against the wall, putting his thoughts together. Then took a deep breath and began.
“Well, it really started a little over twenty years ago, before I was born, when some crazy, cultist mage decided it was time for a major war. I mean, these lands were always at war but this was different. What he and his cultists unleashed on us at the time was like a tsunami compared to the incoming tide.
“He worked in secret, as the cult always does, but this guy was not just crazy. He was smart too. He and his cultists dropped their chaos portals down in the middle of every throne room, parliament house, and council chambers across this quarter of the continent. They obliterated all authority and shattered the chain of command in one fell swoop.
“Everything broke, there was no organization. People were being butchered, lands ravaged and burned and there was nothing anyone could do to stop the demon legions from pouring out of the portals. They got a strong foothold and held it.”
“Some people grouped up and fought back. They formed into the beginnings of the guilds we know today; alliances made between people, tying us together magically and strengthening us all. It was how we survived.
Illyoten nodded, “When I joined this guild, the magic you use is very similar to my tribe’s magic.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Ru said, “What you told me gave me the impression that might be the case.”
He paused, pushing away memories of the day he joined the Paladins of the Phoenix, then continued. “Anyway, that was what this land needed to halt the demon advance and eventually it became a stalemate that lasted over a decade. I joined the fight relatively late in the war, only five years ago. But it was shortly after that that the Demon Lords decided it was time to expand their territory.”
“It didn’t go too well at first, we lost many battles, but trying to expand was a mistake for them. They had to spread across wider and wider areas. Their plan might have worked if we were all organized under one government but we were not. We were a coalition of guilds. We had many different leadership structures. This enabled us to divide our forces and still remain effective and deadly. We were given general goals by the top guilds but we retained our initiative on how to accomplish them. We didn’t have to check with commanders miles away. Our commanders were with us; we made decisions instantly.”
“It took some time and a lot of fighting but we began to push them back. The final victory came when the largest guilds launched a huge offensive to occupy the demon legions while the smaller guilds tapped every illusionist they could get their hands on and snuck behind enemies lines to strike at the Demon Lords in the heart of their camp. We managed to kill most and the rest were driven back into the Chaos Realm. Without their leaders, the other demons broke and ran.”
“That’s what gets me,” Illyoten said. Ru raised an eyebrow and he continued, “Why? Why did they scatter? They still had you vastly outnumbered.”
Ru shrugged, “Most demons are stupid. They are brutal and driven by base animal instincts. No intelligence whatsoever in their heads. It takes a higher class of demon to bind the lesser demons to it’s will and get them to cooperate and do something smart. When that bond exists, the demons act with intelligence; they fight with tactics. But when the bond is broken, they revert.
“They were bound to the Demon Lords and we made sure to break it. Once that was done, killing them easy which I guess triggered some basic survival instinct inside them and they fled.”
“I see,” Illyoten said, “So the smaller guilds killed all the smart demons?”
“Yes and unfortunately no,” Ru said, clenching a fist in frustration, “That is what is making hunting down the remnants of the legions so hard. We got all the Demon Lords for sure, but there’s a hierarchy of demon intelligence. The Lords are at the top, but there are many nobles and major officers who were more difficult to nail down and kill.
“They were with the armies, not the Demon Lords, when we attacked. There is usually nothing to physically distinguish them from lesser demons. They ran when their armies did. After a while some reestablished their own control over a few and now we hunt down pockets of them wherever we can find them.
“Why is it so important that they are hunted down and killed? I mean besides that they terrorize the locals and lands.”
Ru stared at Illyoten, incredulous, but the man looked like he truly didn’t understand.
“Because every demon with intelligence is a mage. If there’s a single demon noble out there who can stay in one place long enough, then he might be able to open a new chaos portal. The Demon Lords would return and we’d have a whole new war on our hands.”
Illyoten’s eyes widened in understanding and Ru nodded, “Yeah.”
“We couldn’t handle another war yet. Even I could see that as I traveled,” Illyoten said, quietly.
“The people are barely starting to get their feet underneath them. There’s a decade or more’s worth of rebuilding to do. And that’s not even taking into account how long it may take for the land itself to recover.”
Ru nodded again and added, “Let’s not forget that there were six kingdoms here that were obliterated. That’s created a situation that could lead to land-grabbing by neighboring kingdoms. Which again, we don’t need another war.”
“You said all the governments had been destroyed – so who’s in charge now? Who is it that’s keeping the neighbors at bay right now?”
“The three largest guilds formed a coalition called the League of Dreeibos. We call this land Dreeibos now because of that. They imposed order – well they really weren’t imposing. It was welcomed and much needed. The League got some sponsors from Merchant City to fund them. That pays for supplies and for hiring out the smaller guilds, like ours, to handle demon cleanup, rebuilding efforts and keeping the peace.”
“Is that what we’re after here? A pocket of demons?”
“Yeah,” Ru said, “The town thought it was just banditry for a while but it’s been escalating and now people have been going missing, not just supplies and tools.”
“Is that significant? People missing?”
Ru nodded grimly, “Demons eat them.”
“Oh, uh, ick.” Illyoten said, his face twisted in disgust. “Why people though, why not normal food?”
“People are the only ones they can eat that make the demons smarter.” Illyoten raised and eyebrow and Ru continued, “They gain a measure of that person’s intelligence and skills when they eat them. Someone among these demons is smart enough to start creating some mildly intelligent underlings or he is eating them himself to gain more brains and power. They particularly want to eat mages. Luckily most mages are currently employed in guilds and we rarely travel alone.”
“So, they don’t just want to kill us. They want to eat us,” Illyoten said. “Great.”
Ru chuckled and clapped Illyoten on the shoulder, “It makes us great bait but they’ll find out too late that we’re not worth the risk.”
To Be Continued on 11/24/2014