It had to be one of the strangest sensations he had ever encountered during his long life. Ronnath could feel the lingering chill from the magical sleet-storm the druids had conjured to protect themselves from his and his companion's assault. That combined with the lingering stench of burnt grass and charred flesh from the fireballs Thorn had unleashed left the senses reeling.
Thankfully there were no buildings close to the seven arches, the strange monuments that had given the large town its name. The fireballs scorched and left streaks of soot on the archways, but that was the extent of the damage.
Notching another arrow, he did not even bother trying to aim - after all, his target was easily twice his size and outweighed him by a significant portion, and at such close range, the odds of missing were slim. The problem was that the literal nature of the beast proved to be his downfall.
Ronnath had fired nearly twenty arrows at the beast, and all of them should have found their mark, but nearly half missed! From his point of view, the deadly shafts would have penetrated flesh and muscle, but instead they passed through the shadow of the beast.
Displacer beasts were damn difficult to hit, let alone kill, and here he was facing down a monster that put any he had seen to shame. It was massive, but majestically beautiful at the same time, and it hurt him to know he had no choice but to kill it if he wanted to prevent whatever disaster was about to befall the Seven Arches.
A second later, he closed his eyes and decided to go on instinct alone. The adjusted the aim to the side and above of where he was aiming and then let the arrow fly. The beast howled as the arrow bit deep, penetrating the thick muscle and finding the vulnerable heart.
"Finally!" He cried as the beast finally went down, but the cry of triumph died in his throat as surely as if the creature had struck at him with those deadly claws. An inky shadow of the purest darkness poured out from the wound where blood should have been oozing. It vectored in on him and struck him dead in the chest.
Ronnath cried out in shock and fear as he could feel the evil of the blackness, surrounded by a protective sheath of the purest cold he had ever known. Tendrils of insidious alien thoughts tried to wind through his mind, pushing aside all morality and the pureness he held so dear. Screaming in rage, he fought back with all his willpower and the inky stain of evil intellect dissipated with a shriek of anger. Ronnath's head was clear once again.
Just then a portal appeared next to the corpse of the displacer beast it was rimmed with a line of pure white, and yet the portal seemed to be made out of living shadow. It coalesced into a humanoid form, one that was easily ten feet in height and cut from the heart of the abyss itself. Horns protruded from the skull, and both hands ended in horrible talons. Just seeing the demonic creature caused a shudder of fear to run through his veins.
"Don't cross the circle, Elf," the single remaining druid yelled. "If you do, you'll bring more of those creatures here!"
Originally Ronnath and his two companions believed the druids were the ones doing the summoning, but it turned out they were came to act as a counter-point to a group of aberrations that were on the ethereal plane, trying to open a portal of their own.
He, Xavier and Thorn had killed all but one.
Ronnath's bow alone was responsible for the death of three of the five druids, and it was clear from the look of the remaining druid, he was on his very last legs.
"Why didn't ye tell us what you were doin'?" Ronnath demanded, stepping back and drawing another arrow from his magical quiver. He notched the shaft and took aim at the shadow demon and let the arrow fly. It should have hit, but he realized with mounting horror and frustration that the demon had the same ability to alter its outline and appearance, ensuring that what should have been a killing blow missed!
"It was none of your concern, and we answer to no one!" The druid replied between chants.
"Then ye be a thrice cursed fool. We could have helped you, but instead we nearly destroyed you."
The druid ignored him and continued to chant. Ronnath drew and fired a half-dozen arrows at the shadow-demon, who was advancing upon his companion Xavier. The elf was putting up a good fight, and providing the distraction Ronnath needed to take the creature down.
More than once this evening he thanked Solonor for his magically enhanced bow. Normal weapons would not have any real effect on such a being, something spawned on one of the evil planes, hell or the abyss, and he had no idea. It was possible the creature came from the shadow plane, but when push came to shove, it did not matter where it originated – he had to destroy it. Once the battle was won, he and his companions could discuss it, Ronnath was a ranger after all, not a mage or a scholar.
He let nearly a dozen arrows fly, and only one hit. The frustration grew exponentially – he had dealt with this once already and to miss so often was not something he was used to having happen. Rage was about to boil over but he forced it back, knowing if he gave into the primal and dangerous emotion, the fight was already lost.
Once again he closed his eyes and took several deep, calming breaths. It helped and finally he was able to calm his emotions and center his thoughts. He knew exactly what to do, as he had with the displacer beast. Do not use the eyes, let instinct guide his hands, allow the arrow to aim itself and you will know when the time to release is right.
Breathing deeply, he did just that. Anyone watching would have sworn the elf was relaxed and not in the middle of a life-or-death struggle. He looked absolutely serene as he drew the bow back and launched the first arrow. Moving with dazzling speed, the fletching barely passed the bow before he drew and fired a second, then third and finally a forth. All four arrows found their mark and smashed into the shadow-demon, biting through the inky substance it used as flesh and poured out the magic contained in the bow.
The demon howled in rage as the damage Ronnath's shots tore apart the very fabric of its being, and like the displacer beast it suddenly exploded in a shower of blackness. He opened his eyes and nodded in grim satisfaction until a part of the shadowy substance flew directly at Ronnath and struck him in the chest, directly over his heart.
For the second time in less than a minute, he felt the tendrils of pure evil slide through his flesh and blood, seeking out his heart and mind. Ronnath managed to resist the evil presence the first time, but it had taken every ounce of willpower the Ranger possessed. He fought with everything he had remaining, but it was not enough. The shadowy presence contemptuously destroyed his defenses just before it forced his soul into a small corner of his mind.
The demon took over! He screamed and fought internally but all the creature did was laugh at him. "Watch what you are about to unleash, mortal. You may have defeated my body and I will return to the abyss, but not before I have unleashed chaos upon the lands. And such a wonderfully powerful body you possess, I can wreak great harm using you."
Still screaming in his mind, Ronnath could do nothing as the demon forced his body to turn from the scene of battle and head to the south.
There! Off to the left, maybe a dozen yard. The prey was running, dodging from side to side, and crouched low as she tried to shield her baby in her arms. Ronnath's face grinned maliciously as he drew the arrow back and let the deadly shaft fly.
Deep inside his own mind, incapable of doing anything, the true Ronnath watched in mounting horror. He did not know how much more of this he could take. No matter what he tried, he could not wrest control of his body from the demon that had possessed him. After the hundredth victim, Ronnath stopped counting, knowing there was no way he could ever make up for what was happening.
It struck her directly between the shoulder-blades, punching through the thin garment she wore, and the tip of the arrow punched through her breast-bone, skewing the head of the infant she was holding. The woman barely cried as her legs gave out and she fell forward, the weight of her body crushing the tiny new-born beneath her. If the arrow had not taken the life of the child, her falling body certainly would have.
Drawing another shaft, Ronnath scanned the nearly-empty streets. Those who had the sense to stay hidden or run for the hills had done so already. Then again there were a few foolhardy souls who thought they could defeat the man. He had arrived unexpectedly in the small town, with the men and women greeting him until he unlimbered his weapon and began to reap souls, laughing and cursing in a tongue none could understand.
Two such men came running at him, one had a smaller, more primitive bow raised and he let the arrow fly. Ronnath sneered contemptuously as the arrow missed by several meters, and he returned fire. Of course his shot was right on its mark. He loosed the shaft and it pierced the would-be archer's throat, knocking him from his feet. The mans hands flew up to clutch at the shaft as his life-blood poured out from around the entry and exit wounds. He would be dead soon enough, and the threat he presented was eliminated.
The second man held a woodman's axe in both hands as he closed the distance. He brought the weapon up and over his right shoulder, hoping to deliver a powerful side-cut, and take out the merciless murderer, hoping to bur the head of the axe deep into the side Elf's side.
Ronnath notched and fired another arrow, this one hitting the man in the chest, slightly to the left to the left of his sternum. The arrow burrowed through the clothing, flesh, and muscle and still pierced the bone to end up in the man's heart. The would-be defender felt the sharp pain of the impact and then his world went black, his heart sundered and incapable of functioning.
And so the slaughter continued.
More men and a few brave and desperate women attempted to close the distance to take down the attacker, but none came within five meters. Several had remained hidden in the upper stories of buildings and were lucky enough to score a few good strikes with bows and crossbows of their own, but the wounds did not concern the elf.
After all, the magic he carried ensured that he would heal from nearly any wound he sustained, and after yanking out the offending shafts, the wounds closed up in mere seconds, until not even scars remained.
All the defenders managed to accomplish was to gain his contempt and their eventual deaths. Those who could remain in hiding were the lucky ones. Those who stayed and tried to take another shot were killed. At long last the task was complete. The few survivors in the small town stayed hidden, least the slightest sound draw his attention. They knew that to attract his attention would quicken their death.
At last Ronnath stopped walking and he turned his face to the sky. It was a cloudy day, with the threat of rain in the air. He could smell it, and knew it would not be long before the heavens opened their gates and allowed the cleansing water to cover the earth.
He was about to turn and head towards the nearest building, the thought of fire racing through his mind when he felt something on his arm. He tried to ignore it, moving quickly as his hands dug through the many pockets on his tunic for the flint and steel when the shaking became more insistent.
Finally Ronnath opened his eyes. He thought for a second that he was blind, but then he realized where he was. Relief washed over him but he could not shake the horror which still lingered in his mind. He felt nothing but despair and sadness. He had been meditating, and as it had so many times over the past months, he was reliving the horrors of the twelve hours his body had been the unwilling host to that of a demon.
"Home," he half croaked.
"Daddy?" The voice was small and timid, and he realized the Tiefling girl was standing before his chair, her tiny hand on his bicep, gently shaking him.
"What's wrong daddy?"
He tried to speak, but the words stuck in his throat, instead he shook his head and stared into the darkness, spotting her eyes instantly. She was tiny, only about seven or eight full turns of the season. Her eyes were ruby red and they glowed like a beacon in the darkness, something for him to latch onto, to draw him away from the evil memories, like a moth attracted to flame, his soul reached out to her, seeking solace in her love and lack of judgement.
Truth be told, he was considering suicide – no matter what atonement he tried, it would never cleanse him, or bring back the dead. But he knew he could not. There was one life that counted on him and that was his only anchor now.
Cheonsa reached up with her hand to touch his face. She drew back her fingers as if shocked and stood very still for long minutes before she spoke. "Why are you sad?" She asked and then quickly added: "did I make you sad?"
It was almost more than Ronnath could take. He reached out and gathered the little girl into his arms and held her gently but firmly. "No not at all, Cheonsa," he told her, his own voice barely above a whisper. He could feel her heat through the night-clothes he had purchased for her, and knew she was holding Jackie, the raggedy doll, the very same one she had when he had adopted her months ago. Over the months since he had perpetrated the murders of the innocents, he had not once awoken his girl. He had managed to keep the night-terrors, or as humans would say, the nightmares inside, hidden away from the rest of the world.
The girl placed her head on his chest and breathed slowly for a few minutes. "Then why are you so sad?"
Should he tell her? Would she even understand? Would it harm her? She was bright and so observant, and more often than not he would catch her looking at him, worry furrowing the flesh between her horns. She knew something was bothering him, although he always treated her with kindness and love, making sure that she was the center of his universe. He asked himself these questions and more before finally settling on what to say. "Because I was… I did something… very, very bad."
"When?" Her voice held more curiosity than anything else.
Ronnath thanked Solonor she did not ask him what, or for that matter, why. He already had enough evil to atone - many lives that were destroyed because of his action and skill with the bow. "When I sent you with the other people, away from the town to keep you safe."
"I remember, you said that something really bad was going to happen, an' many monsters and bad men would come and they would want to hurt me an' the others."
"Exactly," he said. Except – it was not a group of bad men. It was the Oakenwatch. Five druids had arrived to try and counter the spells that were being cast by strange aberrations, which could only be seen and fought by those with access to the ethereal plane of existence.
He, Xavier and Thorn had been waiting for the ritual to begin, and had ended up killing four of the five druids before they realized that they had made a horrible, terrible mistake. Oh there had been monsters involved – the massive displacer beast, and the creature that had used his body for so much death. That thrice cursed and damned shadow demon.
Ronnath could feel her watching him and he realized he had stopped speaking. He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes, feeling the tears still running down his cheeks. "Aye, there were monsters, and my friends and I fought them and we defeated them, and kept the monsters from causing something really bad to happen."
"Then, why are you crying?"
"Because one of the bad monsters made me do something."
He looked into her beautiful, ruby red eyes and realized that he could not keep it from her, no matter how she ended up feeling about him afterwards. "The monster made me hurt a lot of people."
Her eyes widened and her tail began to twitch. He could feel it thumping against his legs in perfect time to her beating heart "You mean you killed 'em?"
"Aye - I killed them."
She considered this as she rubbed one of her horns. "But you didn't wanna, right?"
Ronnath did not trust his voice but he managed to tell her. "No I really did not want to," he thought back to all the lives he had taken over his own long span of years. Most of those who perished by his arrows or other weapons he used were certainly evil, and there were also those who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He had never, up until that fateful battle, ever willingly harmed anyone who was not trying to kill him first.
"So how could the bad men make you do sometin' you didn't wanna do?" She continued to lean her head against his chest, and although her horns made it somewhat uncomfortable, he endured it.
"The monster did something to my mind. It took over and forced me to kill people," he wanted to explain more, but she was just a child and it was hard enough for him to deal with the reality of what had transpired.
"It's 'k daddy," she pulled away from him and looked up into his dark-enshrouded face. "I still love you anyway."
Silently Ronnath thanked Solonor, any other gods who were listening, that he had chosen this young girl to bring into his life. He barely knew the child. He had only a couple of months to get to know her and then when they had arrived in the Seven Arches and dealt with the possessed warden, she had been taken by the Fae. It took him several long weeks of searching before he finally found her and they had been reunited.
Much to his personal joy, the little Tiefling's face had lit up as bright as the morning sun when he had arrived to demand her return. Thankfully the Fae had treated her with kindness and compassion, and for that he was grateful, but she belonged in the mortal world, and with the man who had taken her as his daughter.
Of course he cared deeply for the child, but now he realized how fast and completely the little half-fiend had stolen his heart. He honestly loved her and he felt as if his heart would burst at her youthful words and her simple outlook on life. From that instant he knew he would sacrifice his life if it meant she would live. He would do anything for her to ensure that she would grow up happy and loved. He kissed her between the horns and held her tightly.
"Daddy, I want you to learn me how to fight."
He had been planning on doing so, when she was a little older. It was a dangerous world and he knew that there were many who would try to harm or even kill her for what she was, only seeing the demon and not the girl, or the beautiful woman she would grow to become. "Why's that, angel?"
"Because," she said into his chest, one hand over his heart, the other holding Jackie tightly. "No one can make my daddy sad! I wanna hurt anyone who would try."
"Angel I'll teach you, but not now, soon though," his throat was tight and he felt tears fill his eyes again, but not from sorrow."
"You said a bad man made you kill those people, how?"
"I've told you about spirits and ghosts, remember?"
"Aye – you said they have no body, right?"
"That's right, and because they have no body, they can enter a person and take control of them."
She pondered his words, trying to wrap her young mind around the concept. She seemed to understand. "An' that's what happened to you?"
"How can you stop the bad men from doin' that again?"
He thought about it. After the event, when Xavier and Thorn had discovered him, they spoke to a mage that had helped them numerous times over the years. The old mage said it would not have happened if they had a simple protection from evil talisman or spell. Such was beyond their capability back then but it was no longer the case. He knew it would probably be difficult for her to understand, but he decided he would try anyhow. "I need special magic, maybe a talisman or amulet, something that contains good magic and will protect me from bad men and magic."
"Like momma Cenna's special symbol she had over her door!" Cheonsa said, looking up at him, her young face bright with excitement.
Of course she was right, the woman who ran the orphanage from which he had adopted the girl had the symbol of Ilmater, the crying god. He knew it was a powerful talisman, that it radiated light and had a profound aura of good when he had seen it. Of course Ilmater was not his god, and such a symbol would only cover a location. He needed something that he could carry with him at all times. "Aye angel, exactly. And you thought of it!"
She yawned hugely and rubbed her eyes. It was clear that the girl was still quite sleepy but her concern for her father took precedence over rest. "How 'bout we go to the big city an' find you a symbol that ye can use then?" She asked.
That was not a bad idea, Ronnath realized. From the mouths of babes, he almost laughed. "Aye, I do be thinkin' we'll do just that," he agreed.
She yawned again and her eyes were half-closed. It was so obvious she was struggling to remain awake. "You gonna be 'k daddy?"
"With you here to protect me?" He said in all seriousness, "angel you have kept me happy and you help me keep the bad thoughts away."
The cabin having grown cool over the night, and it would only grow colder as the days progressed. It was early fall in the northlands and although they were close to the coast, winter was coming. The likelihood of snow as remote, but it did not mean that it would not grow colder.
Although he considered it, Ronnath did not want to get up to light a fire. He looked down and saw that his daughter was sound asleep- clutching her raggedy doll in one arm, while the other held onto his tunic. His chair was deep and comfortable, and there was a pile of furs he kept nearby to help ward off the cold. Reaching out, he grabbed a couple of furs and covered himself and his sleeping daughter. She mumbled slightly and wrapped her free arm around him, holding him as tightly as she could in her sleep.
Ronnath closed his eyes and was thankful that he was not human and as such did not require sleep. It was bad enough that his mediation continued to pull him back to those hated memories, and he knew that if he dreamt like humans and others, the nightmares would be worse than the reality of the events. At least that is how he understood sleep and dreams, and it was something he would never know.
It was still many hours until dawn and he was feeling exhausted. At least his body was at rest. He sent a silent prayer to Solonor to allow him one night without redressing the memories. He wanted to feel fully rested and ready to face the day with a clear mind.
At least he had Cheonsa. The girl loved him and even though she did not know it, and probably never would, she had saved his life. She was the reason he would remain on this plane of existence, if only to protect her and ensure she grew up strong, happy and loved.
He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to drift. He hoped that by turning his thoughts back in time to when he found Cheonsa it would be enough to ward off the visions of death and blood.
The problem was, no matter how he tried, the pleasant memories would not come.