Hunt - Epilogue
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30 Arodus, 4692 AR; Defenderâ€™s Heart, Kenabres
30 Arodus, 4692 AR; Defenderâ€™s Heart, Kenabres
Defenderâ€™s Heart was a cramped place even before the fight of the Grey Garrison. Now, however, with both the remaining Crusader force and the mongrelmen trying to all fit in the place, there is barely any moving room. And that does not shine true anywhere more than in the tavern portion of the inn, where dozens upon dozens of men and women all crowd together around the tavern tables. They are all either playing Argus or observing those who do, letting out loud cheers for impressive moves or playful jeers at the losers. It was as if the men and women were all one big family having a family night.
Shayliss was leaning against the railing that overlooked the tavern, watching the post-battle festivities. While she did not know the specific numbers, she knew that the â€~Siege of Grey Garrison,â€™ as the fight for the Wardstone Fragment was named, had the lowest casualty rate as any mission or skirmish since the invasion of Kenabres. The Crusaders and Mongrelmen were both celebrating the successful offensive by taking a few days of rest.
Beside her was a large book open to a chapter break. Set into the binding of the book as a bookmark is one of her many sketches of Valtyra. It was among her belongings that she took back from those robbers. She still did not understand all of the bookâ€™s topic but she could feel that something had changed since coming back from the Grey Garrison.
She took a second to look down at her hands, dirty and calloused but otherwise whole. The power that she felt in the Wardstone Chamber was still within her, even if it was not trying to break out of its fleshy cage. From talking with the others, it seemed like everyone had a very similar experience as her in the Chamber after the Wardstone shattered. Similar visions, similar power, everything. Yet, when she talked with Irabeth, who was right there beside them during the whole skirmish, the half-orc paladin did not have the experience nor the power.
Shayliss did not understand what had happened to them, but it was pretty obvious that they had been given power by the Wardstone. She was afraid of what that meant, though.
â€~Help meâ€™ â€~Help meâ€™ â€~Help meâ€™
â€œMay I join you?â€
Shayliss jumped at the sudden voice from behind her. She felt her arm hit the book on the railing next to her and worked to catch it before it fell on the unsuspecting men and women below. Once she was sure everything was secure again, she turned to find Anevia standing in the doorway right behind her.
The scout was standing on both feet without any issue. She must of had one of the healers patch her up while everyone else was at the Grey Garrison. The change in her posture was subtle one now that she did not have to worry about putting pressure on her leg, but it was a powerful one that gave her an air of confidence that finally matched the rest of her.
She gave Shayliss a small smile, â€œSorry, I didn't mean to frighten you.â€
Shayliss snorted, â€œYouâ€™re just good at your job.â€ She waved a hand, motioning the other woman toward her, â€œPlease.â€
Anevia nodded and walked to the railing, standing to Shaylissâ€™ right, â€œWhereâ€™s your hook?â€
It took Shayliss a second to realize what she meant, â€œOh, Snaga has it. He said he wanted to study it. I asked what he was doing, but he only said that it was a secret.â€
â€œHeâ€™s actually talking to you?â€
Shayliss shrugged, â€œOnly one word sentences. But I think he is finally starting to trust us.â€
â€œThatâ€™s good to hear.â€ Anevia watched the events below them before asking, â€œWhy donâ€™t you join them?â€
Shayliss let out a bark of laughter, â€œEven if I could fit down there, I have never been good at Argus.â€
Aneviaâ€™s eyebrow rose, â€œReally? I have seen a couple games of yours with the other Crusaders. While you did not win, I think you had some great strategies.â€
â€œLike you said, I didnâ€™t win any of them. I only won once against Kaira when we were learning the game in Neatholm and that was by luck more than anything.â€
â€œHow many games have you played since?â€
Shayliss took a second to remember, â€œMaybe four? All of them losses.â€
Anevia nodded, â€œHow many has Mordria played?â€
â€œAt least fifty. She spends a lot of free time in here playing with the soldiers. I think the only people she has lost against is you, Irabeth and one of the Crusaders. I think her name is Elie.â€
Anevia nodded again, as if Shayliss was giving her the answers she was expecting, â€œOne last question.â€ She points a finger toward one of the tables, â€œTell me whatâ€™s going on in that game.â€
Shayliss blinked but turned her head toward the table in question. Two Crusaders were sitting down in front of the makeshift board a Crusader who used to be a woodcarver made for the game. Surrounding them were mongrelmen and Crusaders alike and it seemed to be a particularly intense game as the faces of the onlookers were all focused on the game with concentration only seen on the battlefield.
The game itself had been going on for about half an hour. One side had no Control Gems flipped over so he had not lost a round yet while the other side had two gems flipped. If she lost this round, she would lose the game. Yet, something drew Shaylissâ€™ attention to the board itself. It was fairly covered with cards and with her height she was able to make out that the winning side was using the Varisian deck while the other was using the Worldwound deck, a very unpopular choice among the Crusaders for many reasons. But what made the board interesting was that the Worldwound forces were slowly overrunning the Varisian forces. Something that should have been easy to do with the Worldwound before that round. So, why was it only now working?
Thatâ€™s when she got it.
â€œThe Worldwound player sacrificed her first two rounds, probably a lot of forces as well, to get exactly what she needed to start getting the upper hand. She had been letting her opponent beat down the units she did not need so she could get more cards in her hand later in the game.â€
â€œDidnâ€™t she wait too long, though?â€ Anevia asked, seemingly pleased to hear Shaylissâ€™ answer.
Shayliss studied the board harder. Her instincts were telling her that the Worldwound player did wait too long. Even if she won this fight, she would still have two more rounds to win unless the Varisian player gave up which is not something that the Crusaders tended to do even when playing Argus. One lesson Shayliss learned quickly when playing against the Crusaders is that you cannot force them into surrender. They would rather die fighting than give up. Which is probably a reason the game was still going.
Yet, something was tugging at her brain. Something that made her ignore her instinct and really study the game. She looked at the cards on the table, the position of the terrain and other cards that would remain on the board even after a round ended. All of those still pointed to it being too late. It was not until she went through the cards she knew were in both decks that she realized what the Worldwound player was doing.
â€œHer waiting game is still not over yet.â€ Shayliss said with a gasp of surprise.
Anevia arched an eyebrow, â€œOh?â€
â€œSheâ€™s waiting for a series of cards that will help her win the last two rounds of the game. Sure, she is using what she has now to win this round, but she is mainly using this to keep the game going. Sheâ€™s waiting for the Glabrezu demon card and the Vrolikai demon card. Getting those will pretty much guarantee her the win assuming she can keep them on the board long enough. The problem with summoning those units is that they are large and become a major target for big spells and all enemy units. If they are not used fast enough or protected, they can die before they are used effectively.â€
Anevia gives Shayliss a look of surprise before nodding, â€œYes. That is true.â€
Over the next fifteen minutes, they watch Shaylissâ€™ observations come true. The Worldwound player does manage to summon the Glabrezu demon on round four and the Vrolikai demon on round five. The player protected her powerful demons through support from the other units she summoned to the board first and the terrain that both she and the Varisian player summoned, effectively trapping the Varisian player while providing a nice buffer for the Worldwound player. When the Varisian player flips over his third Control Gem with a sigh, the onlookers, who only grew since Shayliss started observing, let out a massively loud cheer that shook the whole building.
â€œYou were right.â€ Anevia commented, adding a hint of â€~I told you soâ€™ into her tone.
Shayliss snorted in mild surprise, â€œI was.â€
â€œI think that table is about to clear. Maybe I can show you some more of the intricacies of the game since you seem to have more of an idea of the strategy.â€
Shayliss nodded and let Anevia guide her down the stairs. As she did, Shayliss could not help but notice the sudden and intense attention of the Wouldwound player on her. Even when Shayliss returned the attention, she did not back down, even giving Shayliss a small smile.
Shayliss did not remember to take the book or the sketch of Valtyra with her.
The room filled with cheers as Mordira flipped over her last Control Gem. It had been a hard fought game but she was not able to keep up with the very devious mind Irabeth had when it comes to Argus. All of their matches have ended as two points against three and only about half of them were victories for her.
Both of them stood up as the onlookers continued to cheer and jeer.
â€œThat was a wonderful match as always, Mordria.â€ Irabeth said with a smile.
â€œSame here.â€ Mordria answered, suddenly very tired. It was surprising just how much mental energy it took to play a match. Especially against someone like Irabeth, who most certainly used her military experience to great advantage.
Irabeth held out her hand for a customary handshake and Mordria reached out to grasp it, â€œIt is always a pleasure to face you.â€ The last word shfited in tone and intensity very slightly and Mordria immediately knew why.
She pulled her hand away quickly but she could still see where the plated gauntlet bent where her fingers closed. A quick look showed that Irabeth was doing her best to hide the pain but Mordria knew where to look and sure enough, she found it.
Without another word, she vacated her seat so whoever wanted to play next could sit down and moved out of the backdoor as quickly as she could without being obvious about it. As she did, her gaze moved across the table where Anevia and Shayliss sat. It looked like the game was moving slower than a normal game did. Anevia was most likely teaching Shayliss.
Once outside, she could feel the cool autumn air gliding against her skin. It was hard to tell what time it was since her sight was not based in her eyes, which were gone, but the strange energy she received from the injury that took her eyes let her see the moon overhead. It seemed to be around two in the morning.
Behind Defenderâ€™s Heart was a sparring and training area where the troops could get some training in while having to stay in the general vicinity of the inn. It was not a great place with only two straw dummies and a small ring, but it was usually busy during the day. Mordria was honestly surprised that Kaira was not back here. The hunter could almost always be found here, practicing her bow.
Mordria shifted her body to aim right for one the training dummies, a simple thing in the shape of a tiefling wielding a shortsword and shield. Without bracing herself, she raced forward, at least twice as fast as she had ever been able to move, toward the dummy. She could feel the power surging through her, enfusing her muscles and guiding her magical sight. When she reached the dummy, her arm swept upward from her side, claws gripping the underside of its metal armor, and threw it upward.
She could hear the air rushing past the dummy as it soared into the air. Within half a minute it went beyond the clouds above and out of sight, straw falling back down. Mordria waited, watching the sky for any sign of the dummy. She found it about a minute later, when the barely perceptible form of the dummy reappeared as it descended onto a building about a block away. She could not hear the crash from its landing above a sudden cheer from within the inn.
â€œYou have gotten stronger, havenâ€™t you?â€
Mordria turned around to see Irabeth walking out of Defenderâ€™s Heart. She had her arms crossed and a look that mixed curiosity and worry.
â€œI guess so.â€ Mordria answered, â€œI mean, there was no one descending from the heavens to tell me that I became a godling.â€
Irabeth chuckled at the soft joke, â€œItâ€™s never that simple, is it?â€ The half-orc points to one of the observation benches along the fence and Mordria sits down next to her.
â€œNone of you asked what happened.â€
Mordira snorted, â€œYou mean when we were passed out for two days?â€
â€œYou all were pretty lucid.â€ Irabeth said with a mischievous smile, â€œBut you did have some interesting things to tell me.â€
Mordria blinked, â€œI donâ€™t remember any of that.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry.â€ Irabeth said with a laugh, â€œYour secrets are safe with me.â€ Her expression turns down into seriousness again, â€œDo you want to know?â€
When Mordria simply nods Irabeth starts, â€œShayliss took Jeslynâ€™s scythe right to the guts. I thought that she was dead when she hit the floor, but she seemed like she was trying to keep fighting. Thatâ€™s when Kaira hit the Wardstone with the rod.â€ Irabeth paused, â€œThere was a sudden flash of golden light and I thought that it had blinded me for a moment. When my vision returned, Jeslyn was dead from the Wardstone shattering and you guys were knocked out. Thankfully, you were only down for a minute before you got up. After your fight with the babaus, you suddenly collapsed, as if whatever power you had disappeared. And you know the rest. At least the rest after your two day nap.â€
Mordria snorted but did not have anything else to say. After a few minutes of pure silence, Irabeth stood up, stretched and started walking for the inn.
â€œIrabeth?â€ Mordria asked. When Irabeth stopped, Mordria stood up, â€œWhat is happening to us?â€
â€œI think you have been Chosen.â€
â€œChosen for what?â€
Irabeth turned halfway to look back to Mordria, â€œTo lead the Fifth and Final Mendevian Crusade.â€
When the five-hundreth cheer shook the building under Snagaâ€™s feet, he flinched hard enough to nearly send his inkwell flying. He managed to catch the glass vial in time but he noticed that a few droplets of ink fell onto the floor leaving a barely perceptible black stain under the moonlight. None of the ink hit his notes or the grappling hook he was studying, but that did not stop the surge of annoyance rising in his body.
With a sulfurous curse, he shot up from his seat and aimed for the door. Those soldiers needed to calm down and he was going to request they do. If he had to do it by bashing in a few skulls, so be it. He needed to get his work done and their constant yelling is not helping him at all.
Before he took two steps, he could feel a hand press against his chest. With that hand came an arm which wrapped itself around his waist. Both felt bare and as solid as anything else in the room. Its subtle but powerful restraint pulled Snaga away from the door and he tried to fight it for a few seconds.
â€œItâ€™s alright,â€ Nephalimâ€™s voice whispered in his ear, â€œItâ€™s alright.â€
Along with those words, Snaga could feel the hand gently sliding back and forth across his chest sending a sudden but not unwelcome sensation down his spine. It was a shocking sensation that seemed to lock his body in place but it eventually shifted into something smoother and gentle. Something that glided through his body and loosened the tense muscles that had built up the past day.
They stood like that for at least five minutes, Snaga taking in the soft touches and letting his mind focus on the sensation. When he finally felt his anger calm down, he laid a hand on Nephalimâ€™s and started to pull it away. Yet Nephalim did not let go. Which he was sure he did not mind much.
â€œThe impulses,â€ she said after another two minutes, â€œthey are getting stronger, arenâ€™t they?â€
Snaga could feel the anger pushing its way back up into his head, but he let out a snarl and forced it back down, â€œYes. Ever since the Wardstone Chamber.â€
Nephalim walked around him until they were facing each other, her arm still wrapped around him. She was completely unarmored, which is something Snaga was still surprised she was able to do. Eidolons are not supposed to be able to change their appearance without guidance from their Summoner. She looked so much smaller without her mixed armor and it gave her an appearance of confident grace rather than one of hulking strength.
â€œThe power you got from it is really strong. I can feel it through you.â€
â€œNot only that, but it has the capacity for growth.â€ He said, placing his head on her shoulder. It felt warm and inviting, â€œI do not know how, but this is only the beginning of what I can do.â€
She let out a soft sigh, â€œAnd you think it is driving your rage?â€
â€œNot directly. The mere idea that I have power stronger than any of those Crusaders down there is whatâ€™s driving it.â€
â€œA God Complex?â€
Snaga let out a small smile, â€œSomething like that.â€
â€œYou know what could help?â€ Nephalim asked, pushing Snaga so he faced her again, â€œGo down there a mingle with them.â€
â€œNot when I am so close to the answer.â€ He said, a sudden panic hitting his system. He had to make sure he had an excuse not to go down there, â€œIf I could just figure out how to control the Law of Kinetic Friction, then maybe I can bypass the-â€
He did not see it when Nephalim placed a hand over his mouth, shutting down the rest of his sentence. â€œThis is exactly what I mean.â€ She said with a barely concealed hint of laughter, â€œIf you moved away from your work for a day, you may be able to figure it out. And enjoying time with those who fought alongside you would do wonders for your anger.â€
Snaga sighed and moved her hand, â€œYou are not going to let this go, are you?â€
â€œI will drag you out there myself if I have to.â€ She responded with a huge smile.
He raised his hands in defeat, â€œFine. Fine. Iâ€™ll go. Let me just organize my notes.â€
Grumbling half-heartedly, he moved back to his desk and rearranged all of his piles of notes in a system that he was sure only he would understand. When he was done, he let out another sigh and turned to find Nephalim patiently waiting at the door for him, that smile still plastered on her face.
He could not help but snort and smile himself as he left the room, the noise of the tavern below almost blasting him back. Fighting through the sudden increase in noise, he made his way down the stairs, Nephalim close behind, her gaze moving around the room as if looking for something.
A call of his name brought Snagaâ€™s attention to one of the tables toward the back of the tavern room where Shayliss and Anevia sat. They had the card game in front of them and two drinks half drunk.
A hand suddenly pushed him from behind and he let out a small grumble toward Nephalim before moving toward the table.
â€œItâ€™s good to see you, Snaga!â€ Shayliss said as he sat down. He had the sudden impression that the drink in front of her was not her first, â€œWant to play?â€
He gently shook his head.
â€œI think you would do good.â€ Anevia said, placing a card on the board. Snaga had no idea what was going on, but the similarly colored cards told him that Shayliss had more cards on the board. Also that she seemed to have the upperhand positional wise.
â€œShe has been getting a lot better since the Siege. Sheâ€™s won all three of our games so far.â€
The early morning air glided across Kairaâ€™s skin as she lay down on the innâ€™s roof. She was not paranoid about being so exposed as the demons who had been flying around Kenabres for the past week were mostly gone. Those that remained avoided Defenderâ€™s Heart like the plague. Two brave souls decided to do a flyby but neither noticed her. Whatever power she now held was actively hiding her from their sights.
Blueeye lay next to her, his breathing soft and slow from sleep. Yet, Kaira could see his ears twitch with each noise. Ever since she rescued the white furred pup from the Worldwound with that mysterious woman, they had been close enough to be able to practically read each otherâ€™s mind. After the Siege, though, that connection has become so deep that they were one being. Kaira could feel the power coursing through him and she was sure it was the same for him.
That mysterious woman. The one who rescued Kaira when she had managed to get past the Wardstone Barrier. The huntress had not seen her since she walked back through the Wardstone Barrier with Blueeye in tow. When she had her vision, though, she clearly saw that woman. Not only did Kaira see her, but she felt the woman.
She felt the shackles that held the woman to the stone wall. Could see the iron bars that blocked her way to freedom. The pangs of hunger that had not been sated in days or even weeks. Limp muscles that did not have the energy to move. The defiance of those who kept her in captivity. Seething, boiling anger. And a longing for one soul.
Ever since she received that vision, she had wanted to pack up and head out of Kenabres. The drive to rescue her rescuer. Seeing her in that state angered Kaira more than anything else had in her life. Even now she could feel the rage rising. Kaira knew she could do nothing. Even though she saw the cell that her rescuer was in, she had no idea where that prison was or what was guarding it. If she went out to try and find the woman, even with her skills, she would get nowhere. Something in her told her that it did not matter. That she would find a way. Her legs were trying to follow along with her anger. Her muscles tensed up trying to rise and move.
Blueeye must have sensed her confusion as he raised his head and gave Kaira a worried look.
She gave the wolf a smile and pet his head, â€œYeah. I donâ€™t know either.â€
At four in the morning, Strune finally gave in and decided to sleep. She was somehow the first one of their group to give in to her exhaustion yet she imagined that she would not be alone for long. Shayliss and Mordria were both about to collapse, only staying up because they are in the middle of games. No one had seen Kaira for hours, but Strune was not worried.
After saying good night to the others, Strune headed up the stairs and into her room. She barely remembered to take off her armor before diving onto her bed. The blankets under her felt as comfortable as if they were on top of her and the pillow was just perfect. She was out within seconds.
When she next became aware, she was standing in a field of pure white. Under her feet, she could feel the uneven texture of grass, though with all of the white around her she could not see the grass at all. There was no sense of depth as there were no shadows. Yet, she still had a sense that she was standing in a completely flat plain.
Strune was about to wonder why she was standing there when a form appeared in a great aura of light. It descended gradually with a chorus of angels behind it. It took no time for Strune to realize who, or Who, was coming down upon her, and she knelt down as fast as she could.
There was no mistaking the black hair cut in a short bob, the thin, angular face and near black eyes that give the descending form the look of a warrior. Her body is covered in full plate mail common among paladins with the crest of the Sword of Valor in the breastplate. Hanging down her back was a red cape with the crest sewn into it and golden clasps attaching it to the breastplate. Inside of the cape was a longsword in a beautiful sheathe and in her left hand was a heater shield with the Sword of Valor set into it.
Strune looked down toward the white grass when she knelt, so she could only hear when the form of Iomedae, the goddess of Valor and Justice, landed in front of her. However, seconds later, she could feel something pulling her back up. It was as if her whole body was telling her to rise.
â€œThere is no need at the moment.â€ The rather normal but commanding voice of Iomedae said with a hint of humor.
Strune stood back up, no longer fighting the urge to rise on her own. Yet, she did not look right at the goddess. She knew that if she gave Iomedae the slightest excuse, the goddess could do horrible things to her.
â€œDo not worry, Warpriest.â€ Iomedae said with that same humor, as if she had read Struneâ€™s thoughts, â€œI am not here to exact any punishments. In fact, it is quite the opposite.â€
Strune blinked in surprise. What did she mean by that?
â€œYour fight against the demons, the strength and determination of not only you but your allies were those I have not seen bettered. Your will to save the Crusaders and the citizens still within Kenabres moved me to act.â€ Iomedae stepped closer and gently pulled Struneâ€™s face up to look at her, â€œI cannot do much, but on the morrow, you will find yourselves strengthened even more than what you have already been given. I wish I could do more, but even gods and goddesses have their limitations. Good luck, and I will be watching you all closely.â€
With a smile, Iomedae bent down and gave Strune a kiss on the forehead. That contact sent emotion and energy rolling throughout the strixâ€™s body. Then, the world around her darkened around her until she no longer felt anything except for the point of contact on her forehead.