The Third Magic
Alfheim Wanderer has, as always, been great help, wonderful editor/writer, and great friend. If it wasn't for Alfheim Wanderer's support, this chapter would not have come into being.
That aside, support of my readers help keep this story alive.
Reason for delay at end of story.
Small hands, the tiny palms of a child, reached forth.
Before her eyes was her mother, smiling radiantly down at her in what could only be a dream. Happiness, after all, was not her lot, and her mother had died many years hence.
How many years had it been since she had last heard her mother's voice? How had her mother sounded? Spoken? Seemed? She could no longer remember.
She could not even piece together the broken syllables shaped by the dream-mother's mouth.
Around her, the world was shrouded in a hazy mist, through which diffused a pale white illumination that blurred everything it touched. Through it, she ran, reaching forward, pushing herself as hard as she dared as she sought to touch the now-quickly receding image of the one who had given birth to her. Faster she ran, and faster still, bare feet pounding against the icy surface of a room of white as she leapt up, hoping to grasp the hem of her mother's feathery gown-only for her to stumble, her fingers closing upon empty air, as the illusory figure disappeared into the light, leaving her utterly alone.
An odd, muffled sound issued from behind her - almost like hard rubber against wood.
With a jolt, she turned, only to freeze at the sight of her father smiling down at her. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he noticed her, looking at her as if to engrave her image in his mind before he, too, left her. She blinked and struggled to stand, to run to him, but the exhaustion of running after her mother still remained. She could not hear what words her father spoke, if any. Neither could she smell the condemned man's last cigarette dangling between his fore and middle fingers.
She cried, but was not heard, as the man simply turned around, and began to walk away.
She cried out, screaming at the top of her lungs, letting her tears fall freely - and yet her pleas, her shrieks, fell upon deaf ears as the other continued on unflinchingly, each step determined and carefully deliberate.
Why? Why was this happening?
She had no time to question, just enough time to follow.
So she ran once more, breathing ragged and hands outstretched, trying to join her father, to catch up to his receding back. She only wanted to stay beside him, to not be alone.
Was that really so much to ask?
But his clipped, efficient strides were too fast, his steps too wide. The distance increased, and not once did he look back to her.
Desperate to not be abandoned, she flung herself forward, reaching to grab her father's ankles, thinking that perhaps her feeble strength would be enough to slow him down, to make him reconsider. Yet once more, she missed, her fingers failing to seize even the tails of her father's trailing coat.
And then she was alone again, surrounded the endless expanse of an empty world, where nothing existed. Not air, not color, not even any hint of life or human presence.
A growl like rolling thunder reached her ear, and once more the girl staggered to her feet, whirling about to confront the source of the sound. Yet she stopped herself in mid motion, not wanting to turn around fully, lest she be disappointed once again. Since hope was the best spice to bring out despair - perhaps it was better not to hope for anything to begin with, so she could never be betrayed.
Yes. She would become like the snow - become a maiden of ice who felt nothing at all. No happiness, no grief, no pleasure...and no pain. She would become a snow angel, accepting everything.
But her resolve did not last, as the world of snow trembled before a giant's mindless fury, knocking her off her feet and shaking her to her core. Out of pure instinct, she twisted as she fell, freezing as her eyes fixed upon the majestic form of an adamantine giant-a titan among men who bore strength born of madness.
She knew his name and that he would not hurt her, but did not dare call out to him, in fear of him leaving her, just as her parents had before her, for the only thing worse than being alone was to gain a taste of someone's company only to be betrayed.
Yet she had been alone in the world of ice too long, and so with a faint voice she called to him, a tremulous whisper that could barely be heard above the sound of falling snow.
Miracle of miracles, he heard her, eyes the color of blood turning to regard her, the fire reflected within a stark contrast to the frozen world without. He bared his teeth, roaring his defiance to the winds - but though the world trembled, though everything shook before the giant's wrath, not a sound could be heard.
Why? Why could she not hear the mighty war-cry of the Berserker, promising destruction to all those who faced him in battle?
Why did she hear only an unnatural silence?
Her eyes widened as a choked cry died strangled in her throat, and this time, she couldn't even muster the strength to stand, much less raise her hand to touch the adamantine giant before her, lest he disappear as well. But as she watched, he remained.
He did not run, did not turn, but simply stood before her like the statue of some ancient, indomitable god of war, his presence alone warding away the specters of the past.
Gingerly, she reached out to her companion, as if to verify that he was real, a weak smile gracing her lips as soft palms made contact with steel-like skin, assuring her that she was not alone.
But she should not have allowed herself to hope, for the fates would never be so kind.
A flinch as some hot liquid splashed into her eyes, blinding her momentarily. She wiped it away - only to see her hands stained a bloody red...and the hilt of a gargantuan sword protruding from the chest of the leaden giant.
Said blade was joined by another, and then another, as improbable volleys of legendary weapons sprang from newly formed rips in the fabric of reality to skewer the man of stone. He in turn lunged forward to deflect them with contemptuous ease, to show why he was considered the strongest of beings, spirit or otherwise-but the moment he moved, his limbs were bound by golden chains.
He struggled, but struggled in vain, as the more he fought, the tighter the links became, the less he was able to move as a storm of metal raged, tearing the giant apart.
The girl of snow shouted for all of this to stop, pleaded for her faithful protector to be spared...
...but it was for naught, as his form shattered into dust, consumed by the light, leaving her alone.
Once more, she was alone.
Her knees felt weak.
Her legs gave out and she collapsed into a heap, her lower lip trembling as she tried to hold herself together, but failed, silent tears flowing unbidden from eyes the color of blood.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, a rough hand rubbed her head softly, stroking her silver hair, its warmth startling in the confines of this frozen world. She looked up in curiosity, seeing that it was her brother, here to wake her from her nightmare.
He smiled warmly at her, and tentatively, she smiled back, hoping that this time, things would be ok. And for a time it was, as the boy helped her to her feet. The weakness in her body began to fade, iciness replaced with inner warmth that seemed to cure her ills.
For a moment, she felt whole and strong, and able as she walked beside her brother, following him on his chosen path, accompanying him through his trials. For a moment, she felt the joy of being loved. For a moment, she was (not) alone, as she matched him, pace for pace and stride for stride.
But it was only for a moment.
Soon enough, her brother's strides grew longer. His paces grew faster, and he stopped looking at her and stopped smiling. Like a sword passing through a tempering flame, his skin grew tanned and his hair grew white, as if fire was his blood and steel was his body. From casual clothing, his garments turned to black and silver armor, covered with robes the color of blood as his innocence died, and his dreams were ground to dust.
She was strong now, more than able to stand up to him.
She would bring him back, would make him smile again.
She would remind him that his ideals had not been in vain, that at the least, someone had been saved and-
"Is that really what you think?" The voice of an Other asked, steeped in bitterness and resentment borne of the pain of her existence. "You really want more of this, even though everyone you know has abandoned you? Even though you've been betrayed, forgotten, and left utterly alone?"
She stayed quiet, letting the other speak as she would.
"You are a fool, despite all your power," The Other said coldly, the frosty tone more condemnation than any scream or shriek as a mirror to her being gazed into her. "You failed in your duty because of your weakness. You destroyed our family because of this, and yet you still have the audacity to dream of the one who led you to drown in your ideals and die? What have you gained? In the end, you have nothing."
She let the Other run around and get away with a great deal of things. She allowed the other the use of all her knowledge and power, and allowed her to indulge in her desires, yet even now, she felt emotions she had not felt for a long, long time as the Other spat on her dreams.
Rejection and rage.
She would not allow it.
"For that I have lost, at least I had it in the first place!" the girl cried out, in answer to the Other's cold rant. "At least I experienced life, with a real mother and father, who cared for me...who loved me. Tell me, what do you have? Servants sworn to serve a ruined family? A duty that can never be fulfilled, a futile wish passed down by those who lost their way centuries ago? You had nothing!"
"A mother? A father? And what good are those when in the end they betray you?" The Other spoke with utter dispassion, her words more hurtful than any weapon in this realm of thoughts and broken dreams. "What good is it to have something if it slips from your hands? All you gain is the memory of loss, the pain of being abandoned time and time again, as humans show how unreliable they are, how easily they betray you. None of them have ever given you anything, except to worsen your pain..."
"...you," the girl seethed, voice hissing through clenched teeth. "Don't you dare judge me. Don't you dare."
"Tch. Believe what you will - you know I am right. Because in the end, you cannot escape the truth. That I am right, and you are wrong..."
Frozen by the stare of those crimson eyes, the girl couldn't reply, though she wished fervently to deny her doppelganger's words with all her might.
Fortunately, she was shaken from such thoughts by a hand on her shoulder.
"Miss Archer? Miss Archer, are you alright?" a concerned voice asked. It was the half-elf Tiffania, who was looking at her strangely, noticing that she'd blanked out. "You've been standing there for more than several minutes, Miss Archer. Are your injuries bothering you…?"
A deep, shuddering breath.
"I… I'm fine," the lady Archer said simply, shaking her head and purging her mind of irrelevant musings on the past. "I'm sorry for spacing out, master. Don't worry, I'll be fine. Let's go."
They stared at her.
They all stared.
Tiffania could feel them, could sense how their eyes followed her, watched her cautiously, bore into her back hatefully. The eyes of the family of the farmer Jeremiah, who had been taught to fear elves for all of their lives. But it was only to be expected, as all humans, save the orphans she had raised, had looked at her that way, as if she was the spawn of a demon.
'Why should things be any different now?' she wondered, as she tugged her cowl tighter around her head. 'I'll always be an elf to humans...'
And humans always stared, always looked at her as if her very existence left a foul taste in their mouths.
An uncomfortable silence had fallen over the band of refugees as they pushed northward, trying to escape the demon-ridden lands from which they had come, to flee the nests of merciless all-devouring shadow-beasts that had already claimed thousands of lives.
None of them were comfortable with each other, or with the de facto leader of their party, in the wake of recent events, given the revelations and truths they had become aware of, and yet they knew that to separate was suicide, so they plodded on uneasily, meter by meter, league by league.
Having lost the mule they'd used to haul their supplies before, the party had converted the wood from their cart into smaller handcarts that they could push or pull at need, though even with these, they could only take a week's worth of food, if rationed.
The boys pushed the carts with their mothers following behind Maria, who was a few paces behind Tiffania.
With her powerful senses, the half-elf could hear the family's hesitant footsteps behind her, following along exactly, as if afraid to get too close or two far away. Each time she paused, the others stopped as well. Every time her head twitched, every time she gave even a hint of turning around, she could hear the hitched breaths of the women and the soft stumbling of the boys, feel the tension in the air as they looked at her in fear.
Her heart ached each time she did turn around to even glance down at Maria, to see that the family would all turn away. They would not meet her eyes, and while they grudgingly accepted the necessity to move as a group, the family only did so for survival - and were careful not to get too close to the elf.
She could not blame them. With Jeremiah's body still warm and barely covered by earth, Tiffania had every reason to hate herself. Thus, the only comfort—the only bits of sanity within her mind—were linked to little Maria - the only one she'd managed to save.
In contrast to the somber mood, emphasized by the aura of gloom in the smoggy sky, Maria hummed a light, offbeat tune that Tiffania had taught her a long time ago. It was one of the first songs that Tiffania's mother had taught her - and seeing Maria so cheerful, even in these times, helped the half-elf keep her sanity. Maria did not bother with the details and she did not over think the reactions of the family.
She did not notice the grim expressions they wore - or if she did, did not let it bother her.
Tiffania envied that innocence, and wished she could not sense the fear of others.
It wasn't right! To have such poor, little children fear her struck a deep scar within her heart, a wound that had yet to mend and still fresh from the nights before where her orphanage was slaughtered.
For a moment, she was tempted to ask if there were any way to make amends, but decided against turning around. As she was born a half-elf, it was her fate to be feared, to be hated.
And so they stared, as she walked gamely on.
Tiffania's legs began to wobble as she walked, acute dehydration causing her vision to blur and her mind to grow faint, with the world beginning to spin before her eyes. It had been hours since she'd last had the chance to drink anything, as she'd given most of her water ration to Maria when the little girl had complained of a dry throat. That had been around noon - the sun loomed much closer to the ground now, and the hot, fetid air almost seemed...oppressive, malignant in its strangling pressure.
It was especially so for the half-elf, as she normally wore a minimum of clothing, and the thick hooded cloak in which she was currently attired was a far cry from that. It seemed almost to smother her, wrap around her so tightly that she might suffocate.
Maria wasn't much better off - though the little girl had often volunteered for chores and to help out with work, she wasn't used to having to walk for long stretches at a time without adequate water. And even the farm boys from the late Jeremiah's family, who were used to hard labor, looked as if they were about to keel over.
"Um...why don't we take a break for a few minutes?" the half-elf suggested timidly, cringing as the others nearly fell over themselves as they ground to a halt, the momentum of their repetitive motions collapsing upon itself when their limbs ceased moving.
The others had kept going in silence until now, matching the grueling pace set by the odd "Miss Archer" and the one who commanded her, without a word of complaint. For the farmers and others that had been picked up knew that to fall behind (or to be abandoned) meant death at the teeth and claws of demon beasts, and they dared not provoke the mage-knight who protected them or the elf she served.
A classic case of being caught between a rock and a hard place.
So when Tiffania suggested they get off the road for a moment and rest, they were more than happy to comply, almost scrambling for the shade of the trees along the roadside - and slumping against them, trying to find a balance between moving away from the half-elf and remaining within the mysterious "Archer's" line of sight.
Despite the pain in her chest, Tiffania felt there was no one to blame but herself, since it was she who had asked the knight who called her "Master" to go and investigate what had caused the sound of distant screams that fateful night a week ago, which had left the group vulnerable to those awful men...and worse, all the others found had been killed, bodies rent limb from limb by ravening beasts.
"Strange," the enigmatic Archer muttered from the half-elf's side, startling Tiffania, as the warrior had closed the distance between them in utter silence, almost as if she were more spirit than human. Some hero of legend perhaps-though the woman referred to herself as merely a Counter Guardian, whatever that was-who remained vigilant while everyone else relaxed, like the edge of a drawn sword.
"What is it, Miss Archer?" Tiffania asked in trepidation, her delicate ears twitching under her hood as she extended her senses.
"One of these days, I'm going to have to teach you reinforcement magecraft," the Counter Guardian replied, shaking her head. "Memory modification is useful against humans, but against these beasts..." She sighed, shaking her head even as her piercing eyes scanned the area for any anomalies. "Make no mistake, even if they are not right in front of us, our lives are still in danger. You can feel it, right? How the balance of the world is in turmoil; how nature and life have been thrown into chaos; how few remain upon this road."
She kept her voice low enough that none of the humans of their group could hear her, allowing only her master to hear.
The blond elf flinched as the snow-haired woman's words hit the mark. Though she was only a half-elf, and not as fully in tune with the spirits of nature as her full-blooded brethren, she could sense how disturbed the world was.
Wreckage littered the ground they walked, lining the side-trails they took. Wood, stone and all other materials crafted by human hands had crumbled, shattered to pieces, as if their very existence had been killed. Villages were empty, devoid of life, even of the physical traces of murder, save for the scent of blood and fire in the air, so thick that one could taste it.
It reminded her of the disaster that had befallen her town in her youth, one which few acknowledged out of fear of royal retribution...of a tragedy that only a few children had managed to escape.
"Um...Miss Archer...if there are any more survivors... " the half-elf began, though she trailed off, as she didn't feel she had the right to speak.
Nevertheless, the mysterious Archer knew her thoughts.
"...you wish to save them?"
"...yes," Tiffania admitted, closing her eyes as she looked to the ground. "Even if I have no right to ask it. Even if I wasn't able to sa-"
Tiffania's head rocked back as the woman knight flicked her on the forehead, causing her to flinch and turn red with embarrassment. But the Archer didn't let her look away, as her surprisingly soft hands cupped the half-elf's cheek.
"Do not blame yourself," her protector said, her cool words almost a command as eyes the color of blood bore into blue. "You are not at fault for what happened. If anything, I was the one who did not exercise enough vigilance."
Tiffania's eyes widened in shock at this.
"How...how can you say that?" the half-elf asked, flustered. "If it weren't for you, we would all be..."
"It is impossible to save everyone," the Counter Guardian intoned, thinking back to bitter words she'd heard long ago. "One can only save the ones they choose. And even now, I'm not sure I'd call our states saved, as we are not nearly out of danger."
"...but you have the power to protect us...right? Where I do..."
"...yes, anything for my Master, of course. But don't belittle yourself - you saved Maria, didn't you?" the lady knight noted, her lips curling into a gentle smile for just a moment before her expression hardened once more. The cold mask of a being sworn to fight monsters with all of her being - of one who wished to be a hero, but knew in her heart that she was merely an imitation. "So if we find any more survivors, let us do our best."
Tiffania felt an odd twinge in her chest at Miss Archer's words, though she didn't know why the other's presence reassured her so. It was like how she felt around Mathilda, the woman she thought of as a sister, who had saved her life (and those of the children) in the distant past - how she felt when she watched the other's back.
"Yes, let's do our best..."
"Good. You're stronger than you think, Master!" Miss Archer said softly, surprising the half-elf by pulling her into a hug. Her hands traced Tiffania's spine, sending tingles through her body. "Chin up, chest forward, standing tall. Let's go..." And then almost as an afterthought, she handed over a waterskin. "Here's my water ration by the way - I don't actually need liquids or food so long as the connection between us exists."
"Share it with Maria, but do drink some yourself - you can't save anyone if you can't stand you know," the Counter Guardian murmured, before stepping back from the half-elf and looking at the other members of their refugee party, who had scattered as far as they dared. "What are you all doing, so far away from us? Come on, we can't wait all day!"
The boys turned to each other, and then looked to their mothers in confusion. Their mothers looked equally confused, but all of them paused as Tiffania turned back to see their reactions. They were tired, haggard after days of travel, and didn't know whether they could go any further, but...
'Should we wait for them to rest more, or...?'
But while Tiffania might have been inclined to give the others some time to come to a decision on whether or not they could continue, the mysterious Archer knew that waiting any longer was not an option. So she called out again, this time louder, loud enough to cause the women to nearly jump where they stood.
"Come. We're responsible for you, you know? So stick close and let's get going! At this rate, it will be sunset soon, and we don't want to be caught just off the road," the warrior ordered.
One of the women, a strawberry-blond that Tiffania remembered to be Anya, nodded to the other woman shakily and walked ahead, beckoning for the rest of the family to join her. Maria, for her part, just went up to Tiffania and took her hand.
And so together, they set off once more, towards a distant hope of salvation.
'It's not safe. Nowhere is safe. The demons...are nipping at our heels,' Tiffania thought anxiously, as the fiery orb of the sun rose in the sky, its scant illumination driving away the malingering shadows that hung over the land.
They'd survived another night, but the protracted stress of their flight from danger was beginning to take its toll, with the half-elf only managing to get a scant few hours of sleep each night. To be sure, she'd used her magic to soothe the minds of those she traveled with, easing them into dreamless sleep so they could rest, but she could not help herself in that regard, and so kept a silent vigil over the sleeping children gathered around her.
All of them ultimately depended on her and Miss Archer to keep them safe, and while the half-elf trusted her savior implicitly, she didn't dare trust herself.
'...what if I fail? What if I make a wrong decision and someone dies?'
The twin burdens of guilt and responsibility were terrible things, especially when taken together, and when every morning, the others (reluctantly) thanked her skittishly, as if afraid she might do something to them (say, leaving them to die) if they didn't.
'I'm...I'm tired.' And why wouldn't she be, when she was the focus of so much hostility and fear, accepted as the leader of the group only because the others didn't really have a choice. 'I try my best to help, but this is all I can manage? ' For a few moments, she even wondered if it would be better to just surrender and be consumed, to shuffle off the mortal coil and hand responsibility to someone more competent - like Miss Archer. 'But that wouldn't be fair to her. And it would make her efforts to save me meaningless...'
She knew that. She knew that full well, but...she was so very tired.
She heard things at night: whispered things, whimpered things, secret things, long after everyone thought she was asleep.
Secret fears, complaints, musings about how hopeless everything was, set against a backdrop of unnatural silence. The wind did not blow, birds did not sing, insects did not buzz, the symphony of nature did not play, as the twin moons glared down like hungry eyes, as if the heavens themselves were simply the trappings of a great demon biding its time until it simply consumed the souls of all below.
All too aware of how strange the world had become, she found herself unable to sleep, even as she closed her eyes and tried to force the transition to slumber. Her body would tremble, images of terrible violence and death would flash against her eyes, scenes from the past shown to a captive audience as her body grew hot and fevered, forehead, palms, all becoming slick with sweat, waiting for an attack that didn't come.
The awareness of danger wore upon them daily as they made slow progress across broken lands, until at last, after what seemed like a small eternity in this solemn, hopeless flight, they reached a place that was different from what they'd encountered before, passing through a narrow gorge that served as the gateway to a hidden valley, with forbidding cliffs rising from the ground almost as if to create a natural fort.
Yet even within the mouth of the valley, things were not entirely right with the world, as the sparse vegetation on the badlands within looked like they had not seen rain in many years. What trees there had been had been reduced to stumps, and it looked like nothing so much as...
"...a killing field," the lady Archer said quietly, just barely loud enough for even Tiffania's superhuman hearing to pick up. "Trees cleared to prevent anything approaching whatever is ahead from taking cover. The ground poisoned and salted to deny intruders any refuge, though it will do little enough against the shadow beasts."
As confirmation, she knelt down, using one of her fingers to swab the ground, bringing up a bit of the grey substance that covered the world like ash. Slowly, she ground it between her fingers, feeling the texture, running prana through it to analyze its composition.
As a homunculus, a being closer in nature to a spirit than a human, she was immune to most poisons and had some degree of magic resistance, so she was the best choice to examine it. Not that she was prepared to do something like taste the mysterious substance, to the disappointment of most of the of the refugee column when she caught them looking.
"What, did you expect me to taste something on the ground?" the warrior questioned archly, causing the others to look away. "I'll warn you though. The ground here isn't safe to touch with your hands - and I think the water may be tainted as well."
Everything seemed to be coated with a film of whitish-grey. A substance almost like mud, caked over almost everything in sight, its lack of color mirroring the disposition of the cloudy skies above.
'This isn't quite mud...or any normal toxin...' she thought to herself, as something tugged at the back of her mind, something dark and half-familiar. 'It feels almost...like a curse. But I don't remember exactly what...'
Maria looped in from beneath Tiffania's arms and knelt curiously at Archer's side, interrupting the elf's protests, "Hey, Big Sis, why's this valley all covered in this grey stuff? And just what is it anyway?"
Following the archer's example, the little girl bent down, curiosity getting the best of her as she reached out to poke at one of the grey mounds-but was forced upright again, as the half-elf grabbed her wrist with a vice-like grip.
"Maria! Don't touch it! Miss Archer just warned us that it wasn't safe..." Tiffania scolded with a firmness that did not belong to her voice. She was worried, deathly so, and feared that the place they'd reached wasn't any safer than the dangerous roads.
Maria giggled nervously.
"Eh, hee hee, uh, Big Sis, I g-guess I'm a little dizzy, that's all." She couldn't stop herself when she coughed roughly at the end of her sentence.
"When was the last time you had something to drink?"
"Um, just a while ago?" the girl said, shuffled her feet nervously.
"Let me see that," Tiffania sighed, reaching around and grabbing Maria's waterskin before the tiny girl could leap out of the elf's reach. The little girl yelped indignantly but did not move to stop Tiffania from taking and opening her flask, finding that it was bone dry. "Maria, you should have told me you had none left..."
"B-but, Big Sis..." Maria protested. Tiffania saw in the girl's eyes a conflict between wanting to drink but also wanting to save water for her guardian, who she knew sacrificed of herself.
The half-elf might have found this touching, if she believed she was worthy of care, but given that she believed herself undeserving of attention, her presence alone having brought disaster to the orphans more than once, all she could think was that Maria was misguided.
"Drink," Tiffania said softly, putting on a gentle smile as she pulled out her own waterskin, which still had a mouthful or two left.
Maria simply nodded; she could never argue against her big sister when she spoke so softly and affectionately. She tried to take just a small gulp, to save a bit for her guardian, but the moment the life-preserving liquid touched her lips, her body was not her own, and she could not control herself as she gulped down all that was left.
...all the while, Tiffania stared down at her charge, thinking that if nothing else, she would protect Maria, that the little girl who had done nothing wrong might survive, even when she herself might not.
"Hey, what's with the waitin'?" Gino, the younger brother asked curiously. His blond mop fluttered wildly on his head, against the howling winds of the valley. "I see the fort that grandpa told us about at the other end of the valley there!"
Indeed, in the distance, a speck of white could be seen - a structure that to more discerning eyes revealed itself to be a small fort, built around a towering white tree.
"Huh? Oh, is that it?" Maria gasped as she finally stopped her mad gulping, distracted from her guilt over drinking the last of Tiffania's water. "Um...but if that's so, why aren't there any trees here beside the one in the fort?"
"I..." Tiffania began, but she didn't know how to respond in a way that wouldn't frighten the girl.
A killing field, Archer had called it. Where men leveled the ground so their field of fire would be unimpeded...
"The people in the fort probably cut the others down so they could see if there were friends and refugees coming, so they could better help them," the Counter Guardian noted, not all together untruthfully. "From the look of it, there are others here, and the land might be protecting them."
"Wha-what do you mean?" asked Anya, the redheaded mother of Gino, as hope flooded into her shaky voice, tension seeming to bleed out of her frame. "D-does that mean Caerdydd is safe? C-can we go there?"
Her elder sister, Dorothea, placed a firm hand on her shoulder and muttered, "It's still too close to be Cardiff, sister."
"A-ah, of course!" Anya nodded before noticing how the rest of the group was all staring at her. She blushed and hid behind her older sister quickly.
"Ahem," Dorothea coughed, grabbing everyone's attention. She focused her gaze upon Tiffania and the odd Archer as she spoke. "It is most likely to be Pinas Powys, the hillfort. There are tales about—"
"Dorothea!" Anya hissed from behind her softly, almost too softly for anyone human to hear. Except that both Archer and Tiffania heard her, as neither were exactly what one might call human.
Dorothea's grimacing visage spun around to her sister as she hissed back, "There's no point in hiding something like that, Anya! Not when the world is ending like this-this... this..."
Her sister nodded; her glaze falling to the ground. "...You might be right..."
"If you ladies would be so kind as to tell me what you are talking about," Archer interrupted as she smiled widely at the two women, "that would be wonderful."
Dorothea gulped, recognizing something dangerous in that smile.
"Ah... yes, there are ah... tales... about this place," the woman said slowly. "They say there's a spirit of nature that shields this fort, taking the form of a silver tree watered by tears."
"Spirit? Protecting?" Maria asked, wide-eyed, her interest piqued. "That isn't what the Church says..."
Gino growled at her from her side, "So what about it?"
"Nothing!" Maria replied in an odd tone as she skipped ahead of the group quickly, passing Archer.
"Oi!" Gino shouted indignantly before his older brother—cousin, really—placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head down at his younger sibling. "Oh... right..."
"L-let's be off then!" Tiffania tried to gather the group, and failing as her whisper of a voice was drowned by even just the children's feet shuffling. "P-perhaps we c-could make t-time and reach the f-fort by dusk?" She asked.
Archer sighed, brushing a silvery strand away from her face. She laughed, albeit a bit mirthlessly, as she wrapped an arm around Tiffania's waist, shouting to their group, "Come on people, you heard your beautiful leader, let's go!"
As they approached, they could see spikes littering the ground, scattered all around everywhere.
From a distance, they had appeared to be merely mounds of dirt, but up close it was plain how dangerous they were, with razor-edges growing out of a spikes of stone, weaving a great barriers of stony barbs that even the refugee column could barely squeeze past one at a time - and with great caution, as brushing against any of the thorns would cause unprotected skin to bleed.
'Channeling us into certain paths and slowing our movements...this is well made indeed...'
Slow enough in fact, that by the time they reached the fort, the sky burned a fiery red, as the sun was nearly swallowed up by the horizon, and the roars of shadow beasts filtered into Archer's ears from a vast distance. Yet, for now, she was in no hurry, as she seemed to recognize what the hills surrounding the fort represented - a barrier - and not simply a physical one of stone and dirt, but a spiritual boundary field as well.
Archer had tasted the difference in the air the moment her group crossed the barrier, with its innate magic having found them to not be hostile. It was a nostalgic taste on the back of her tongue, one heavy with cream-like sweetness. It reminded her of her childhood...her now long-vanished past.
For a moment, she paused, but dismissed such thoughts as unnecessary, gritting her teeth at the unwanted surge of memories. She was above being influenced in such a way, and so glared towards the source of the barrier, this disgustingly homely and comforting aura of power.
It was there, somewhere within the center of the fort...quite likely the tree that had been spoken of, given the feelings of shelter it seemed to suggest, quite a contrast to her surroundings, where the spikes, spines, and other rocky protrusions stabbed upwards from the ground almost like a graveyard of swords.
'No. I will not think about that. I will not.'
"Um...Miss Archer...Do you think they'll have food in there?" a soft, curious voice asked, tugging on Archer's mind as its owner tugged on the hem of her coat. Archer's eyes turned to see little Maria, who was gnawing lightly on her finger despite how dirty it was.
Sighing, she allowed her senses to focus on her group and heard everyone's stomachs growling, even Tiffania's. Not surprising, really - they were almost out of provisions entirely.
"...yes, I'm sure they will, Maria," the lady Archer said, reaching down and ruffling the little girl's hair with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "And more, I'm sure they will be willing to share."
'...I'll make sure of it...'
So she thought as they reached the gates of the fortress, finding it odd. Rather than a keep wrought by human hands, this was crafted in layers that seemed almost...organic. Oh, to be sure, the outermost layer was a wall of thick, white stone, fortified with something like reinforcement magic, but the inner layers featured more of the strange tree-like growths they'd encountered earlier, this time wrought of metal and jagged rock.
The only part that seemed entirely human-crafted (and the most glaring weak-point), was the gate, made of solid oak reinforced by bands of hardened steel.
Archer stopped before the door and turned around, seeing everyone staring at her expectantly. She grinned coolly, turning her attention fully upon Tiffania, who shuddered as she noticed Archer's gaze.
"Well, my Master, would you like to knock and let our hosts know that we are here?" Archer asked calmly. "Or should I take a more...direct approach?"
No one had come out to meet them, and no sentries manned the walls - a fairly disturbing sign, given that one would expect more vigilance when taken with the preparations made to the rest of the valley. Unless of course, the bounded field simply repelled any of hostile intent?
If she had to, Archer thought she could break down the gate - or at the least enter the fortress to do some reconnaissance and see if she could force entry, but such a thing would plainly prejudice the dwellers within against them even more than they were bound to be against refugees in general. Perhaps it would be more advantageous to try diplomacy...even if it never really worked?
"I'll try first..." Tiffania said quietly. Her ears drooped as she walked out of the group and approached the gates, staring upwards as if they towered over her.
Archer quickly amended that thought, perhaps such simple, stone walls truly did tower over her Master? But how then, why had she felt an odd power radiating from Tiffania when she entered the bounded field, as if it recognized her as kindred?
"H-hello? Is anyone there?" the half-elf called, her voice echoing through the valley, just barely over the sound of howling wind and the distant growls of rage and hunger. "Can anyone hear me?"
But there was no answer.
"Anyone? We've come a long way, and if you could let us in..."
Still, no answer, and Archer was beginning to get impatient, given how haggard the travelling party was. The walls of a fort such as this should be manned, unless they were expecting the bounded field to hide them - anything less was carelessness on the part of the occupant.
She was just about ready to vault the wall and make entry when a clunk was heard, and heavy feet dragged themselves to the edge of the walls. A young man barely out of his teenage years stared down at them. He had cropped, dark-bluish hair and wore a worn suit of what looked like iron scale armor. He grimaced down at Archer and her group, grumbling in the tone of someone who had just woken up, "What is it? What do ya'll want?"
"We respectfully request entry," Archer replied, looking up at the youth and assessing his threat level. "We have traveled far and—"
"And what?" the youth mocked in a high pitched voice before he switched back to his grumpy tone. "And what? You've been chased by demons? You're hungry? Like I haven't heard that before! Go away, we're full here..."
He snorted before turning away.
"W-wait!" Tiffania cried, banging her hands, which had curiously curled up into fists, against the iron gates, "Stop! We have traveled weeks on this road, we have no food or water, and... and... if you would not take us in, at least take in the children! Please!" She shouted, tears filling the corners of her eyes to the brim.
The boy's smug voice filtered over the battlements.
"Not. My. Problem!" he called over his shoulder, only to turn around at the sound of a clatter behind him, as the crimson-cloaked Archer bounded the height the wall in one great leap, landing in a crouch. "...wait. Wha...?"
"Then what is your problem?" the woman asked, eyes the color of blood forcing him to take a step back with the intensity of their gaze. "Tell me, what do you know of suffering, you who have been within these walls? Do you know what it's like to be chased by hounds of darkness each night? To have to fend for yourself on the road against imminent death?"
"...tch, as if you have," the blue-haired man sneered in reply, contemptuous, even as his eyes roamed over the woman's ample curves. "Neat trick, by the way, but that won't get you inside."
Below, Tiffania raised her voice louder and louder, "Please help! Please, I'll do anything, just help these children..."
"Oh? Did you say anything?" the youth called in reply, a sly grin marring his face, though he did that the silver-haired woman seemed to stiffen - and a gust of wind swept the cloak from Tiffania's head, revealing her ears to the world. His eyes widened in horror at the sight. "Elf...and an elf friend! That's how you got through the barrier! It was said to be made long ago by—"
Something nagged in Tiffania's memory, a story of her youth about how the gates of Elven keeps and redoubts were always open to those called friends.
"Mellon?" Tiffania's voice croaked, as the gates swung open by the spirit's whim, leaving the youth slack-jawed.
"You..." the youth began, but then he said no more, as someone had hit the boy's skull from behind, sending him sprawling to the battlement. A gruff, aged man walked up from behind him, regarding both the odd Archer and the group that had apparently opened the gate with a mere word - a group that included an elf.
"Ignore the boy, he doesn't know what he's doing," the man intoned, in a voice rich with authority. The man was covered in heavy looking armor, yet he had a thick tabard over it, making him look even larger and fatter. He wielded a large, red staff, which he stomped onto the ground. "So...elf friend, huh? You're escaping the beasts too, are you? Well, as they say, enemy of my enemy and all. Maybe you'll be of use against the demons." He ground out. "Well? Hurry up and get in! Not like I can stop you..."
Tiffania only blinked at what had just occurred, as she and the rest of her party passed through the gate into true shelter for the first time in days, under the watchful eyes of the keep's commander, and the odd woman who called herself a Counter Guardian.
You might be wondering why this took so long to update. This is because the creative writing forum that I had once frequented as if it was my homepage had changed from a warm, friendly atmosphere to something cold. I guess that's expected from the internet, but it had shocked me how people are. Of course, there are the exceptions, but if you want to blame someone or something for the lateness of this chapter then blame that mod and the few assholes of that forum.