Chapter 102 – Things Best Left Buried.
Trees had their place. They gave shelter, helped keep the air clean, and provided fruit or timber, depending on what type of tree it was. They were a good thing, and perhaps the world didn’t have enough of them, especially in places like the Empire and the Peaks. But the monster trees like these, that just looking at made you feel small and insignificant, these Ueana did not like and could do without. These trees held too many secrets, and were anathema to familiars like hers. She would be more than glad when they left the Confederation.
They had left their campsite about an hour after the dark rider flown off, following invisible trails that only Asher could sense at the moment. They flew directly to and over the towering forests of the Confederation, Ueana’s unease getting steadily worse as their dragons had to keep climbing to keep above the canopy. It wasn’t smooth either, some of the beasts breaking out through the others, clawing up into the sky, displaying to them just how massive they truly were. Sure, they were easy enough to avoid at this height, but if for some reason they had to go down? It wouldn’t be pretty.
There was plenty of life. None of the Daughters of the Wyrm made an appearance, not a human soul seen, even in the larger trees. But of birds and a few other creatures that made their homes in the tops of the trees, there were plenty. More than Ueana had ever seen in one place before. The flocks were massive, moving around like a dark cloud, numbering easily in the thousands. Perching in the branches of one trees, and then swarming from it to another when disturbed by their passing or some other trigger. Some of the species were beautiful. Others, not so much, the shape, colours, or just the fact that they had teeth making her skin crawl. Not that Asher missed any opportunities, the saddlebags of Bonebreaker turning into a colourful array the further they travelled. She was perhaps a little too good at this sort of thing. Even Kitni poked his head out of his saddlebag for a while, watching the birds fly around with interest. Though Ueana told the fox pup, that in no uncertain terms, was he to try and catch anything while they were flying. If he fell, there would be far too many complications. He seemed to get the message, and while his eyes betrayed his desire, he stayed mostly tucked away in the saddlebag.
And then there was a shift in the atmosphere around them. Subtle at first, noticeable but almost impossible to pick out, but steadily getting stronger as they flew further along. The smell in the air, and the feel of it. The trees started to thin out a little, their height decreasing a fraction as their breadth shrunk considerably. Then the scent slammed into them as the canopy broke, the land far beneath them dark, damp, and as much water as anything else. The swamps of the Confederation. She could see the roots of the massive trees, gnarled and twisted, clawing out into the waters, clumps of flaxes and grasses gathered closely in some spots, lilies and large leaves floating in others. Beneath the trees, where there was less light and she couldn’t see as well, it looked slimy and gross. Black glistening roots and branches, the morning mists still hanging around at the edges. It made it less than inviting.
She had heard of them of course. They made up about a third of this kingdom, with one giant one in the middle, and while some people lived near them or in them, they had plenty of wood for boats and barges after all, they were mostly unpopulated. She could see why. It would take a certain type of person to be even able to tolerate them. They flew for a bit longer, till the trees had fully broken over the waters, before Asher slowed down, her familiar banking and making a slow descent. They followed, Kitni deciding that he did not in fact like the smell either, burying himself back in the saddlebag as Ueana wished that she had something to cover her face with, to mute the smell. Dampness, rot, death. She did not like it one bit. And here she thought that some of them might have some beauty and mystery to them. They were just a body of water right, albeit ones intertwined with the forests. Mysteries concealed deep within them, the water flowing though, a cycle of life. This one though. It was still. Stagnated.
Insects buzzed around them, loud and annoying, unbothered by the presence of their familiars. Dragonflies, mosquitoes, some small species that gathered in huge swarms that rivalled the birds above, a sheet of specks floating in the air, and some others that seemed to be running across the top of the water. There were some weird looking beetles too, flying around or floating on the water like miniature logs, and frogs of course, croaking loudly and having a feast.
Bonebreaker swooped above the waters, ripples following him as he flew across them, pulling up and landing as he reached a piece of raised land, covered in the grasses and flaxes that she had seen from above. Callisto was next, landing as close to the earth dragon as she could, the others landing similarly behind them. It wasn’t the biggest piece of land, but by some miracle it was large enough for them to land on, with some space to spare. Not all of the plants would survive them though, but that too was a part of the cycle of life. Riders came and went. So too did the plants.
“This is the place?” Armur queried as she slid of Lizabeth, joining Asher as she stood at the water’s edge, swatting away some overly interested insects.
Ueana hopped down and joined them, pushing magic into herself. She could do without anything trying to take a bite of her, especially as she was somewhat more exposed than the others. Fleur stayed on Lily, Coorie in her arms. Awake and looking around, but only just. She had fallen asleep again after they had left in the morning, Fleur wanting to look after her this time. When they left here, Ueana would take over cradling Coorie as they flew. Even with the reasons why, it was kind of nice having Coorie there with her. Something that she could get used to, even though they all had their own familiars.
“Yes, it is,” the lady knight stated, looking over the waters around them. “The ring pointed to here. There is something here. Hidden, but I can feel it. Not Water, but whatever it was that she was mapping.”
Asher was right. Ueana could feel it too, something hiding beneath it all. Like it was there, but not.
An eerily familiar sensation. One she had felt before. When they had arrived at a location, and not noticed the truth of it till they had explored deep within, then wondering how the hell they had missed it in the first place. The city of the red eyes. All encased in ice.
Ueana gasped as she stepped back, the realisation slamming into her as she felt the magic that was hiding the truth unravel around them. This place was exactly the same.
“They’re here too,” she managed to utter with a shiver as she returned to the water’s edge, peering deep within. “The red eyes.” Things that should not be, preserved by magic. Horrors.
She could see them, within the murky waters, the glow of the eyes the giveaway. Frozen in time, victims of whatever had happened to them. The water encased them, weeds wrapped around them, clustered together like they had been thrown into one big pile, unlike the city of ice where they appeared to have been going about their everyday lives before the magic had struck. Kind of made sense, given that this was a swamp and all. But not any less creepy. They gave off the same aura, the threat they could jump out at you at any moment, but they wouldn’t. Not right now. There was no other movement to them. No other life. But that didn’t make it any better.
“The things that you found up in the mountains?” Asher asked as she stared into the waters, the look on her face saying that she could now see them too.
“How has no one noticed them before?” Armur asked, also looking like she could see them, and none to pleased about it. “Well, apart from the previous owner of the ring that is.”
“The magic that is here, keeping them concealed.” Asher answered matter of factly. Well, that much was obvious, but if they could sense them, surely others could as well, if they had an inkling that something was off.
“Perhaps the pulse weakened the sealing magic?” Fleur offered. She could see them as well, Callisto confirming as much to her. There was merit to that theory.
“Or perhaps, unlike the one you found in the mountains, which was naturally tucked away, this one has guardians?” Armur said as her sword manifested in front of her, crackling with energy.
They had company, Ueana sensing them before she was able to see them, forms rising out of the water from beneath gnarled roots, purple bodies glistening with the water, tattered wings on their backs. A mass of muscles that seemed to defy common anatomy, raw power wrapped up with magic, sharp fangs bared as they gave themselves a shake and stretched their wings. These things weren’t red eyes. They were something completely different.
Demons. Three of them. But not the same as the one that they had encountered previously. These ones looked weaker, though appearances could be deceiving.
Ueana pulled her magic to herself, her body flaring up, her hair taking on the nature of her element as she reinforced herself, a greatsword materialising in her hand. Fleur would not be fighting in this one, Coorie still in her arms. She would fight for all three of them.
“We need space,” Asher roared, Bonebreaker already lifting into the air, the other familiars quickly following. The lady knight was right, the water severely limited their options, and with their familiars directly behind them things could get messy. They’d also be unable to provide any real support without hitting one of them. Ueana steadied herself, the gusts flowing past her, but not moving her.
‘We’re not going far. If we are needed, we will intervene.’ A ball of fire slammed into the roots near one of the demons, the creature twisting out of the way as the wood and water hissed behind it. Callisto reinforcing his word, an ability that he had never had before, something that wasn’t in the realm of the familiars. Except now it was, for him at least. Another gift of the ancients.
‘I know you will.’ She sent warm feelings back at him. She trusted him. He was a part of her after all, more than just a manifestation of her magic. A being in his own right, as bonded to her as Fleur and Coorie. Well, once he would have been more so than them, but things had changed. Things had happened. Ancients. Not that any of them, familiars included, would have it any other way. They just happened to share their life-force as well, their fates inexplicably tied.
Asher didn’t wait for the demons to reach them. Small pallets of stone shot out of the water at the demons, shafts of stone as they got closer to them, long and sharp, enough to fatally pierce through most normal creatures. Except normal they weren’t. They seemed to shrug off the pallets, twisting out of the way of the shafts, not caring about any damage their wings took. The walls of earth that Asher formed around them caused them more issues, one getting trapped, not quite quick enough to squirm out of them before they closed around it, the other two reacting a little faster. And then they were on them, snarling, fangs bared and claws extended, creatures born of horror whose stench was as bad as their appearance.
Ueana stepped in towards the closest demon, swinging her blade hard, flames tearing along its length, and missed, as it pulled itself up, skimming just over her weapon as its claws scrapped over it and straight towards her. She panicked and stumbled, trying to twist around and bring her weapon to bear.
“Shift, change, adapt,” Armur hissed as she stepped up beside her, blade cutting into the creature and throwing it off course, just enough that it tumbled past harmlessly, feet digging into the ground as it stopped its movement, and turned back to face them. Ueana stared in shock. Where Armur’s blade had connected, its hide looked almost unscathed. That was not good. But, it had been similar for the other one that they had faced and failed to deal with. The demon grinned at them, wicked and evil, jaws opened wiped, a chilling scream tearing through the air, its mouth rows of razor sharp teeth and fangs. Like staring at death. And then it was launching itself at them again.
“Easier said that done,” Ueana moaned, shifting her stance, holding her blade defensively, intensifying the flames on it.
“Now’s the best time to learn, or you or the others will just die instead,” Armur stated bluntly, shifting slightly to the side, her blade singing again as she lunged at the demon. The demon didn’t seem to care, taking the hit, wings beating as it stayed its course, claws gouging through Armur’s bracer as she tried to twist out of the way, tearing it off.
Ueana didn’t hesitate, swinging as hard as she could at the creature. If it was going to just take the hits, then it could try and tank this. Her blade smashed into the creature, the shock of the impact reverberating through her arms as it was pushed back, flames leaping off the blade, trying to find purchase on its sleek hide. She pulled back and then lunged, but the demon had steadied itself enough, swatting her blade to the side, fangs uncomfortably close as its neck stretched towards her. She focused on her weapon, and its form, the change coming more naturally than she thought possible, shifting to a blade not unlike Armur’s, one that was much lighter and that she could swing faster. Fast enough for her to catch it by surprise, slipping under its jaw, blade cutting into its side before she rolled out of the way, her own balance upset by the change, the demon’s claws only able to snatch a few hairs from one of her tails. And then Armur slammed into it, her sword targetting one of its joints, energy arcing from the blade and sparking off the demon’s hide, her blade a blur as it dug deep and true.
The demon hopped back, its eyes viewing them carefully as it hissed again. Calculating. Annoyed. Deadly. They had managed to damage it this time, blood seeping out of the cuts. Not giving it a chance, Armur charged at it, blade held low as she sprinted forward, Ueana following after her. The demon waited, relaxing, and then leapt off to the side in an impossible fashion, its body twisting enough to clear Armur’s blade as she swore, its wings dragging the rest of it along. And straight towards her. Ueana swung, the demon grinning at her as she just plain missed, the demon just out of her reach. But she not out of its, its claws raking her front. Ueana grimaced, pushing even more magic into her body there, reinforcing herself as much as she could. She could feel it digging into the layer that protected her there, tearing a part away. Screaming in frustration, she shifted her weapon again, into a simple spear, and shoved it as hard as she could into the demon. And knocked it back, flames dancing at the tip of her weapon. Armur didn’t hesitate, blade swinging into the demon as energy coursed over her, sending the creature tumbling away from them and towards the waters edge.
“Better little fox, better,” Armur said, a happy grin on her face.
The demon hissed at them as it stood, more blood seeping from it, Ueana’s flames still licking at its hide. It looked at them, then to the side, at the mound of earth where the third one was trapped, cracks starting to show, and then behind them, presumably at Asher and the remaining one. It’s eyes were cold, its shoulders cracking as it started walking towards them, then sprinting, a beat from its wings bringing it uncomfortably close far too fast. Ueana acted reflectively, shifting her weapon into a shield, taking the brunt of its attack, feet digging into the ground, Armur stepping in close, the demon too slow to avoid her blade. Ueana’s weapon shifted again, twin blades, a couple of quick strikes as the demon tried to react to Armur, and then into a war-axe, Ueana putting her all into it as she slammed it into its side. Sending it tumbling again, its blood dripping off her blade.
A howl resounded across the battlefield, clumps of earth raining down around them as the trapped demon broke out of its prison, and then was promptly thrown into the water as a ball of flame slammed into it.
‘Focus on the one in front of you!’ More flames soared towards the third demon, hissing as they slammed into the water, the demon pushed back as it tried to avoid them.
She felt Fleur’s presence before she landed beside her, the ground cracking around her and a blast of wintering air flowing past. Ice blue flames danced around Fleur and on her blade, her eyes almost ablaze as she looked at the demon. “Coorie’s awake,” she offered as she held her blade up, as if it weighed only a small fraction of what it actually did.
“She’s staying up there though, right?” Ueana asked, suddenly a little concerned.
“Of course,” Fleur grinned. “She’s well aware of her limits at the moment. I, on the other hand, need to stretch.”
“And I’m not going to let you get hurt while I watch on,” she added more seriously, looking intently at the demon. “You creature, will pay for getting your claws on her.”
“Then let’s finish this, before the other one makes it to the shore,” Armur stated.
It felt natural, having Fleur there beside her. They’d trained so much together, knew how each other moved. Granted, they both had tails now, Fleur not yet having fought with hers, but they’d adapt. She had after all. Well mostly.
Armur sprinted towards the demon, blade held loosely at her side. A sudden halt of her movement, a flick of her blade, a snarl from the demon as it fell for the feint, her follow up strike cutting into its arm. Fleur was right behind her, greatsword slamming down into it as Ueana dashed in around her, her thin blade biting into it before she switched over, pivoting on her heel, greatsword slicing across its legs. The demon screeched, claws flailing at them as it tried to bite Armur, her blade easily parrying its teeth. Fleur grinned, the temperature around them suddenly plummeting as the blue flames intensified around her. Ueana didn’t hesitate, weapon shifting again, her twin blades slicing into the claws.
Another scream, the demon trying to get out of their reach, no longer so keen on taking hits any more, its side now red with its blood. Not that they’d let it, all three of them closing in, working in tandem, Fleur surprisingly brutal in her direct attacks and keeping its attention. Ueana was right alongside her, making use of the openings that she created and making more, the switching between weapons becoming easier each time that she did so, and Armur doing likewise, her attacks precise and efficient.
A fairly effective team all things considered, the only part missing being Coorie, but she wasn’t in a state to be fighting at the moment. It wasn’t just her familiarity with Fleur either that was making them work so well together, Ueana realised. It was their bond too. Instinctual reactions and subconscious sensing and feelings. Armur wasn’t part of that though. She was just that skilled.
And then it was over, the demon making one too many mistakes as its friend closed in, slipping around another blast from Callisto, and landing on dry land with a crunch. A moment of perceived superiority, its last, Fleur’s greatsword slamming into its shoulder and causing it to stagger. Armur’s blade flashed through the neck, clean and precise, a burst of flame from Ueana, hot and intense, separating the two parts and throwing its body into the waters with a cloud of steam on impact. Its blood seeped out into the water, its lifeless eyes staring at the ground.
Not that there was any time to celebrate. A haunting scream broke through the air as the third demon picked up the severed head, looked at it briefly, turning it in its hand, before taking a bite and then dismissively throwing the rest away. Ueana felt ill from the scene, her breakfast threatening to part with her, and then on edge again as it hissed at them, rows of teeth dripping with blood. They’d dealt with one, they could take on this one too, its hide blackened where it hadn’t been quick enough to avoid Callisto’s flame. Hopefully Asher was fairing just as well.
‘Little to be concerned about there. She is far more experienced than you three, and it shows.’
And apparently confident enough that her opponent didn’t require her full attention. A small segment of rock burst out of the ground, slamming into the demon’s foot, Armur not wasting a second as it staggered, dashing in, her sword searing with energy. Ueana hesitated for a second, and then ran in after her, the demon recoiling from the hit, Fleur beside her. A dance of blades, the ground a mess of mud and blood, the demon no more intelligent than the previous one. Dangerous, enraged, blinded by hate, but not able to see the truth of the situation in front of it, and meeting the same fate as its kin.
Asher was standing there, watching them as they stepped back from the waters edge, Armur kicking the fresh head off into the water, cursing as blood sprayed everywhere. There was blood everywhere around Asher too, the body of the demon a mushed mess, impaled and crushed by a myriad of spikes that had been rammed through it, what Ueana assumed to be its head just a round splatter on the ground in front of it.
“You’re fighting better than last time,” Asher smiled, dismissing her greatsword, “and working together much better too. Don’t discount the power that you have. Use it, as well as your prowess, especially when it shows as obviously as it does for you two.”
Fleur grinned, looking proud as she dismissed her weapon, and then gazed up at their familiars. “Look at that Corrie! She actually praised us.”
“Don’t get cocky now child,” Asher grumbled in response, but the smile was still there.