There were few places in the world that could compare to Lea Monde. Across Terra there were a dozen cities that held similar numbers of people, but population wasn't what made Lea Monde special. Many of those other cities had towering buildings and sweeping architecture that appealed to the eye and inspired many with their grandeur. But Lea Monde did things different. Each city of the Civilization contained at its core a holy Mana Generator, provided by their living deity protector, Reijuu, to spread energy and hope across the world. And indeed, Lea Monde had one such generator, but their use of it was disparate from the rest.
Lea Monde was located deep within an ancient forest by the ocean. Old growth and trees as tall as their tallest buildings surrounded the city's landlocked ends, shielding the city from the land. And on its other end, sheer cliffs protected it from the sea. The city's mighty walls seemed to be wreathed in glowing vines, a magical crystal allowed to grow naturally wrapping the city in its gentle embrace. Within the walls stood a city unlike any other. As other cities decided to build further and more impossibly skyward, Lea Monde dug deep into the earth, keeping the city low and stout. A fortress alone in a world of paradises.
Within these seemingly impregnable walls lived a teeming mass of people of all kinds, going through daily routines without worry. The farmers tilled their carefully placed acres, the bakers baked their goods, tinkerers tinkered, and one young girl wandered the town under the watchful eye of her guardian and friend.
"C'mon, Crue!" The young girl shouted, bare feet slapping against the paving stones. Right behind her came the metallic stomps of a tall form composed of nothing but empty armor, a metal golem, known as an 'Armodullahan'. The duo were well known by people around the city. Little Lady Salindra Darkveil, the eager and loving daughter of their High Judge and the captain of the city guard, and the young Lady's guardian and friend, The Last Crusader.
"If you would simply sold down my Lady, then it would be much simpler to keep up with you." The words were reprimanding, but the Armo's voice carried the air of familiarity that said no change would come of the request.
"Not my fault you have lead shoes, Crue," Sal said with a carefree grin. Easily leaving her guardian behind again, Sal ran off, waving hello to the people as she passed. Most were humanoid like herself, but there were a whole slew of other creatures wandering through the marketplace.
Sal spread her wings gently, the broad flaps of leathery skin catching the air, allowing her to leap up into the waiting arms of the local baker. "Auntie Mateus!" She shouted, the fish-like humanoid reaching out to grasp the tiny child.
"Salindra, dear!" The piscean responded, rubbing Sal's hair with her fin. "Shouldn't you be in school?"
"Nnnnope!" the child giggled, "Momma and papa said that there'd be important stuff going on there, so all the kids got the day off!"
"I see." Mateus sounded wry. "Well in that case, care to try a cookie? They're fresh out of the oven. New recipe I'm trying out." She held out a large round cookie to Sal, who didn't hesitate a moment to snatch the pastry out of the baker's hands and start biting away at it.
The sweet bread itself was the same as normal with its deliciousness, but there were small black chunks here and there that Sal had never tasted before. Her first feel of them was slightly bitter, but then the sugar came back and the sweetness mixed in and made her sigh with delight. "This is really good," she said while her mouth was still full. "What is it?"
"Something that came in from the harbor last week. The merchant called it cacao, said it was used in drinks with sugar mixed in. Of course, I wondered if I could use it in some baking, so a few days of experimenting and this is the result." The fishy lady gave a fishy grin. "So do you think I should start selling it?"
Sal gave an enthusiastic nod. "Yes! Yes, yes! I'll tell Daddy about it so he can buy a whole bunch of them. I want them for lunch every day!"
Mateus laughed and set Sal back on the ground while wagging a finger at the little one. "Now now, my Lady. Having the same thing every day would make it no longer special!" She stood there, laughing at Sal pouting just as the Crusader finally arrived, looking very tired from the running.
"Muh-Missus Mateus!" Crue shouted, slumping over tiredly, "I… I see you found Sal..."
"Oh Crue, you silly dear!" Mateus giggled, "Stop acting like you're tired, you don't even have lungs!"
"Harumph!" The empty armor pouted, "I rather like to pretend, Ma'am." The armor's exaggerated pout sparked a few happy giggles from her young charge. "Either way, come now, Milady, it's high time we returned home, your parents will be arriving soon."
"Yay!" Sal leaps from Mateus' arms, giving the piscean woman a gentle hug before rushing off towards her home. Across cobblestone streets and through elegant stonework buildings the duo charged (one constantly wishing for a slower pace), finally stopping before the great stone doors that lead below ground, into the Undercity.
With a gentle tap from the younger of the pair, the massive doors slid open, revealing the dim blue light of the torches within. Street lamps and signs hung from the ceiling in this strange, otherworldly place they called home, a city carved from the marble and limestone beneath the surface.
"C'mon, we're almost there!" Sal shouted, clambering down the steps and deep into the undercity, "If we work fast we can make it home first!"
"I like that plan!" Crue responded, leaping down behind the young Lady Darkveil.
The two descended for several minutes, the light fading from bright daylight to flickering torch flames as the entrance faded behind them. Dozens of persons passed them by as they went, pausing to give their greetings to Sal and accept her waves in return. When they arrived at the bottom of the steps, a heavy whistle blared from ahead. With screeching chugs the Undercity train pulled up to the entrance station.
"Heyo Doomie!" Sal shouted as the massive train rolled down the tracks.
"G'morning Milady! All aboard everyone!" It shouted, the trolley's golem controller bellowing out a laugh. Riding along a rail of lightning, the runic stone platforms chained behind it loaded with seats for the people around the platform to hop on . Sal and Crue hopped on board, picking a nice set near the engine as the rest of the crowd filed in, picking out their seats as well.
"Doomtrain Engine Zero Zero One now fully loaded and leaving from Gate One A!" With his shouting announcement, another blaring whistle-horn and bellowing laugh the trolley pulled away, heading through the tunnels and passages across the underground sectors of the city. Their trip was only a few minutes long, more than enough for Salindra and Crue to relax. Sal as usual had her face pressed up against the windows, taking in the beautiful twilight view of the city all around them.
"Next Stop, Gate One B, Undercity West, upper echelons!" Doomtrain bellowed, rousing the pair and many of the passengers, "All ashore who's goin' ashore!" The pair, and several dozen members of the local nobility stepped off into the ritzier part of the town.
"Thanks for the ride, Doomie!" Sal said, giving the trolley's captain a peck on the cheek and hopping off after Crue.
"Any time, ma'am!" The train bellowed before returning to his duties.
"Do you think we beat them home Crue?" Sal asked as she skipped away from the station and towards the looming citadels ahead.
The animated armor followed close behind, glad she was able to keep up with her charge for once. "Perhaps. We'll have to go and see."
The atmosphere around them grew somewhat dimmer as they approached the citadels, the nearby travelers shuffling around under furtive cloaks and robes while keeping to their own silence when passing each other by. Crue made sure to keep one hand on the sword at her hip, just in case. Sal was oblivious to her guardian's concern, however, continuing to smile brightly and flutter her wings under the occasional breeze darting through the air.
They managed to make it inside the citadel safely, slipping past busy nobles and their assistants, scientists and their experiments, even greeting a few friendly faces. Eventually, after much climbing up stairs (to Crue's chagrin), they made it to their home. The capital citadel was the tallest tower in the underground city, the residence of the elite of the elite. It was also the only part of the citadel with access to real sunlight, as it was situated floor-level to the upper city. Inside was a view of the Serpentarius Chapel in the distance on the surface, as well as a garden on the edge of the beautiful Snowfly Forest that surrounded Lea Monde itself.
As they walked in the entrance Crue noticed that a thick cloud of black smoke was rising from one of the underground's chapels of in the distance. I hope the fire service gets that under control quickly, Crue mused. A fire down here could be devastating.
They made their way through the halls and staircases to Sal's family's suite, which was empty of inhabitants. "Looks like we made it!" Sal shouted, running for her bedroom. Hopping onto her bed, she grabbed her favorite toy, a Behemoth plushie her father made for her, resting her chin on the toy's soft horns. "I wonder what's so important." Her thoughts were cut however, when the entrance to the apartment slammed open.
"Crue?! Crue are you here? Where's Salindra?" A large presence burst into the room, looking back and forth frantically. The being was clad in a black robe and carried a wickedly massive scythe over his shoulder. A large white bone jaw hung out of the hood as the worried-looking skeleton rushed passed the animated armor.
"What's wrong my Lord?" Crue asked, loosening her sword in its sheath. "Is there a threat? Assassins?"
"No! Worse!" Judge Death shouted, "Idiots! Some morons at the Chapel were screwing around with the mana crystals! Something blew up! We have to get Sal OUT of here! The King already initiated the Knightfall Protocol!"
"WHAT!?" The Armo shouted, leaping towards the black-robed skeleton, "But… but that's-"
"NO BUTS!" The Judge shouted, pointing to Sal's bedroom "We've prepared for this! Hurry and get Salindra down to the Catacombs. I'll find her mother. We have to get her out of here NOW!"
Crue held still for a moment before moving to follow. "Sir, if the Knightfall Protocol is activated, then… She'll figure it out before too long. She's a smart girl."
"I know she is," the Judge said. "But it needs to be done. If she asks questions, just tell her she needs to take a Hero's Journey. Send her to Avalon. Don't be too obvious but don't try to lie to her. Just...trust me, ok?"
The Crusader stared at him, seeing the waves of fear and misery coming from him and knew there was no avoiding what was coming. "I… I understand sir. It's been a privilege serving you."
"And you as well." The skeletal man breathed out before opening the door to his daughter's bedroom. He rushed in and gave his daughter a peck on the cheek. "Sweetie, Crue's gonna take you down to the catacombs, ok? Me and momma have some special gifts for you, alright?"
"Daddy?" Sal asked, "Does this have to do with why the Chapel is burning?"
"Err..." He looked out the window, clearly able to see the massive ball of black flames and thick smoke billowing from the old chapel. "Kinda… Listen, just follow Crue to the catacombs and do everything she tells you, alright? Don't stop for anything, not even the guard if they try to order you."
Sal blinked and nodded. "Okay… What about you and mommy? Are you gonna go help stop the fire?"
"That's it exactly dear," the Judge answered with a sad smile. "We'll lick this flame then be back for dinner in a few hours okay?" He drew his daughter in close and hugged her tightly. "I love you, darling."
"I… love you too daddy," Sal said.
"Alrighty," the Judge said, finally breaking the embrace. "Now, you and Crue run along, ok? You've got an adventure ahead of you!" He patted his beloved child on the back, and, with a swish of his robes was gone, just a faint echoing 'farewell' left behind.
"C'mon sal. I know a shortcut." Crue ushered the child through the citadel alone, the pair making a break for it through various fae running about in a seeming panic. Outside at the base of the stairs were two other armodullahans. One had thinner armor colored black and glowing red, the other heavier set like Crue, but pitch black.
"Stalker, Angel!" Crue shouted, Sal perched on her shoulder.
"Crue! What's going on? We've been getting screwball orders from the high command. Everyone's running around like cockatrice that lost its head. What are we doing?"
"I just got orders of my own from the Judge himself. Knightfall Protocol is going down. Get everyone to safety as fast as you can. Me and Sal have places to be. Get on it, girls!"
The two sentient armors saluted, Stalker loping off through the crowds like a wild animal, while Angel leapt off the side of the stairs to the lower reaches.
"Crue, where are we going?" Sal asked, rushing alongside her guardian.
"Like I said, Sal." Crue stopped by what looked like a trash chute, "Shortcut!" She lifted Sal inside and sent her down, joining her down the chute shortly after. Sal screamed with glee as she went down the slide, Crue scraping along behind her leaving a trail of sparks in her wake. It was a long trip but eventually the pair landed several levels down, plopping into a shallow underground river not far from the undercity library, itself a short walk from the entrance to the catacombs.
Sal bounced in the water laughing happily. "Woohoo! That was fun! Can we do it again?"
"Maybe some other time," Crue said, her attention focused on the abandoned gate leading to the catacombs. "Right now we have to keep moving."
The pair walked out of the river and moved towards the catacombs. Above them the loud murmur of the crowds turned to screams of fear and loud explosions began to go off.
"Crue, what's going on?" Sal asked, her smile slipping somewhat as she stared up at the levels high above.
"Don't worry Sal. Your parents are working on it." Crue ushered her charge forward, willing the girl not to notice the omission of truth in her statement. When they got to the gate Crue withdrew her sword and slashed through the lock, pushing them open and pointing Sal inside. "We have to hurry. Grab a torch."
Sal nodded and grabbed one from a metal sconce nearby. "Did you have to cut the gate open? Couldn't you have waited for someone with a key?"
Crue waved the question away and continued walking on into the dark tunnel. "Someone will fix it later. Now come." Thus the two walked on for several minutes, Sal shivering occasionally in the dark.
Down at the end of the tunnel, standing amongst piles of bones and old sarcophagi awaited two shapes familiar to the pair. Judge Death, in his grand black robes, and his bride, Salindra's mother, Lady Asura, her distinctive six arms framed by shadows.
"Crue, Sal! Finally!" Asura shouted, rushing over to the pair, scooping her daughter up in two arms and hugging the Armo with two more. "We were getting worried!"
"You're in the nick of time," the Judge said. "Come, Salindra. Your mother and I have important gifts for you."
Asura set the child down, who then walked between her two parents, worried and confused. "Salindra, my dear child. Times are changing fast, and the future isn't as bright as we had hoped." Asura knelt down, pulling towards her a suit of armor, slim of material but functional. "Your father and I contacted Belial, to forge you armor and weapons, ones that will survive in a world without magic."
"But… how would there be a world without magic?" The concept was so foreign, Sal couldn't begin to grasp it.
"Because, dear, things are taking a turn for the worst in this world." She helped her daughter into the armor, thick plates of glossy obsidian and blackened orihalcon covering her and offering protection to her vital areas. "When times grow dire, impart your will into this armor, and it will cover you from head to toe." She gave her daughter a peck on the cheek, "And be forever strong, my child."
"That is not all, my dear." Death approached, kneeling down. "Belial forged these swords for you. They will never dull, and will slice through anything in your way." He hooked the two swords, long saber-like blades with a complex rune pattern welded in the faces of the metal. "While your heart is strong, they will never fail you." He kissed his daughter's forehead. "May your enemies fear you and may you be swifter than even the Reaper Himself."
"Why are you doing this?" Sal asked, feeling at the heavy weights she had been burdened with.
"Because we must, my child," the Judge said. "Now listen closely to these instructions. Through the Catacombs, you'll find the old wine cellars, and through there is the old gateway. The ancient entrance in or out of Lea Monde. You must flee, run for Avalon and warn them of the dangers that are coming."
"...it's not the fire, is it?" Sal asked, her voice cracking.
"...No. No it isn't. Something else has gone horribly wrong. You must warn King Arthur. Lord Reiju… something has gone terribly wrong with him. And soon, Lea Monde will no longer be on the face of the earth. Many places may join it if you can't get the warning to Avalon." She bowed, sorrow filling her eyes. At the sound of her daughter's sobbing, she spoke again. "Salindra… these are harsh times coming our way. You must be strong. For us. For everyone. Please, don't cry. I understand your fear, but it will only delay your journey further still."
"O-okay." Sal wiped her tears away, trying to put on a brave face for her parents.
"Now hurry my child," Death ordered. "Hurry towards Avalon." He looked to The Last Crusader. "And Crue." His eyes glowed red with sternness rarely seen. "No matter what the cost. Our child MUST escape this city."
"Aye aye, Judge." With a final salute and round of hugs for the family, the red armor lifted Sal up and carried the small child down with her deeper into the catacombs.
Judge Death Darkveil and Lady Asura Darkveil watched them leave and said prayers of protection for them, then disappeared into the dark, re emerging back at the steps of the citadel. They gaze down at the blackened haze that covered the underground city, watching their home descend into madness. Everywhere the dark mist touched the people's screams suddenly stopped, replaced by eerie silence absorbing all sound.
"This is it my dear," Arusa said slowly. Her arms lit up with mana, each limb shining a different color of the rainbow. "Time to do our jobs."
Judge Death removed his scythe from his back, the blade gleaming with malice in the ruby light reflecting from his eyes. "Aye. Time indeed."
"Almost there!" Crue announced, slashing through another locked door. The piles of bones ended, and racks upon racks of wine bottles, glowing with light and centuries old replaced them. The tunnels were dimly lit, but enough that it was still possible to see easily. At the far end they saw a plain wooden door, unblemished by lock or chain. "That's the exit. We're almost out."
Suddenly a hellish bellowing erupted from behind the pair, the lights rapidly dying off around them.
"Language!" Sal said.
"Sorry!" Crue growled, pushing Salindra towards the door. "Hurry! I'll hold it off! Just start running straight on through!"
"But what about you!?"
"I'm an armodullahan, protecting the innocent is what I was made for! Literally!" She gave another sharp push. "Now go! Run!" Sal, still in shock at what that had occurred, obeyed and ran down the hall, sparing a glance at her old friend just as the magical armor slammed the door shut behind her.
Just as the door closed the final lights went out, leaving the Crusader completely in the dark. A mental command lit her sword with flame, pushing the blackness back a few precious feet. On the edge of her vision small tendrils of mist wavered, carrying a cruel hiss through the air.
"Alright you… whatever the HELL you are!" Crue snarled, her damascus rhomphaia cutting runes into the ground around her. "You want through here? You'll have to go through me!"
The black smoke rushed around her like a headwind, twisting and compiling into a looming shape towering above her. The demonic form snarled down on the armor, a massive wall of pure evil set against a comparatively tiny hunk of red metal.
"You're not getting past me, you hear! Vile Darkness!" The Crusader stood firm, planting her sword-edge in the ground. A blinding light filled the room, slowing the shadow's advance slightly. The mist howled with the cry of maddened wolves and barreled forward, pushing against the light and smashing against it with furious abandon.
But Crue's will was strong.
"I am The Last Crusader! Guardian of Lea Monde! Protector of the Innocent! I was BUILT to fight creatures like you! And on my immortal soul, I promise this!"
The light burned brighter, causing the mist to flash into steam upon its touch.
Challenge issued, Crue withdrew her sword from the ground and launched herself at the dark, the demon swirling around her in a merciless embrace.
Sal stared at the door she had just passed through, trying to hear what was going on beyond it. "Crue? Crue are you there? Can you hear me?" She approached hesitantly and knocked, the sound she produced solid and heavy rather than the expected hollow echo. Confused, she knocked again, concentrating on the feel of the impacts. The wood did not budge under her hits, as if it was attached to a dense surface rather than blocking open space.
Narrowing her eyes, Sal knocked harder and shouted, "Crue! Crue open the door! Let me help! Crue!" But no matter how hard she tried, nothing opened the door.
Despite herself, Sal began to shake. Everything she knew was on the other side of this door. Her family, her friends, her home. They had given her a job to do, a place to go so that she could save everyone, but she couldn't leave yet. She couldn't just leave it behind without knowing she could go back. "Please…" she begged.
But there was no answer.
Sal collapsed to her knees and leaned her head against the wood, her new armor and swords clanking as they hit the stone floor beneath her. She blinked and broke out in a smile as a thought came to her. They said these swords could cut through anything… Maybe they can cut the door!
Emboldened by her new plan, Sal pulled out one of the blades at her hip, nearly tripping over due to how long the sword towered over her. The sword was bigger than she was, yet it was still so light she felt like she was barely holding it. Taking a moment to catch her breath and assume a stance Crue had taught her just the day before, Sal stared at the door, telling it to prepare for its doom. With a loud war cry Sal raised the sword above her head and swung down at the wood, edge shining with a will for destruction.
The sword then promptly bounced off the wood with a clang and flung itself out of Sal's grip, sending her sprawling to the floor.
"...No..." Sal growled, tears filling her eyes. "NO!" She rushed forward, fists flying in rage, punching against the wood and leaving tiny dents in it. But the door refused to budge. Eventually, she grew too tired to continue striking. She sat before the door, crying softly as her limbs throbbed with exhaustion. How long she sat there in the empty room she did not know. Finally, after her tears had all been expended she remembered her parents last words. She still had a job to do.
She stood, her body moving under it's own power, even as her mind went blank with sorrow. Grabbing her fallen sword, she dragged her feet through the dusty, dimly lit halls of the wine cellar. After what felt like hours of wandering the maze of bottle racks, she managed to find the stairs leading upward. The house she emerged in was empty, no people there to remark on her presence as she trotted through the rooms and to the door outside.
Sal stepped through the threshold and looked around at the unfamiliar landscape. She was fully outside the city itself on one of the roads that lead through the forest to its gates. Turning around to face the far away walls she gasped at what she saw and collapsed into a sobbing heap. Black smoke rose high above the city in silence, no sound other than the soft whisper of wind approaching her.
She looked at the city she loved from outside its walls, the place where she was born and raised as an outsider. Where her mother, her father, and her friends all loved her and scared for her. She did little but watch as a massive shield of mana enveloped the city, encasing the vile black smog within. And she heard the deafening roar as the Knightfall Protocol was completed.
Just like that, the city was gone. The towering walls had disappeared, leaving an empty plain leading to the cliffs above the ocean. Nothing was left. Not a single sign of the city of millions that had once inhabited this place.
"Mom… Dad… Crue..." Sal knelt there and wept, head resting against the house she had exited. Her mind was enveloped in horror, in sorrow, and in boiling rage at what had happened. She swore to herself through the tears in her eyes, as the city evaporated from her very gaze. On her very soul she swore two things.
She would never cry again, not until she could go home. Until she had set things right. And she would never stop her Journey, not even for death, until her home was BACK.
This is how the story of Salindra Darkveil began.
This is the Legend of The Demon Mercenary.