Chapter 26 - Identity

“We can’t just kill him!  We can bring him with us, we can get him help!”  Sir Andrew shouted at his comrades.  Connor was his man-at-arms, and they had fought alongside one another for years.  Killing him on the word of Artorias was out of the question in his mind.

“Look at him, he’s obviously suffering!  We can’t help him now, and he’ll die before we get very far carrying him.”  Dame Sheira was for giving Connor a mercy kill.

“Indeed.  Best to end it now.”  Sir Roger agreed.

“He’s my friend!  I won’t just let him die like this, just because he says so!”  But Sir Andrew wasn’t having any of it, and even started directing his anger at Artorias.

Leon and Artorias had given the knights some distance and were now watching their argument, all while the subject of the discussion continued to writhe in agony and cough up more blood.  When Sir Andrew called out Artorias, Artorias didn’t even react.  He was waiting for Roland to make a decision and was starting to get impatient.  Leon was more blatant about his desire to get moving, constantly checking the sun’s position and looking out into the forest.  It was almost midday, and they still had a good deal of ground to cover.

Leon looked at his father, silently asking what to do.

“Just wait, little lion.  Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”

“Sir Andrew, he’s suffering.  It’s best to just get it over with.”  Adrianos stepped forward and gave his opinion.  He’d known Sir Andrew nearly as long as Connor had, and they were friends.  Adrianos couldn’t just sit back and watch his friend die horribly, so he spoke his mind.

“No!  Sir Roland, please, we can still save him, I’m sure of it.”

“Enough.  I’ve made my decision.”  Roland stepped forward and drew his sword.  Sir Andrew had been standing in between Connor and the others, while Roland paced and tried to come to a decision, and now that he had, he wouldn’t hesitate.

“Sir, please!”  but Sir Andrew still didn’t want to give up.

“Out of the way, Andy.”  Roland stopped in front of the other knight and waited for him to move.

“Not going to happen.  I’ll carry Connor back home myself if I have to.”

Roland sighed.  “Look at him, Andy.  Really look at him.  Does he look like someone that can still be saved?”  Roland spoke with a slow and calm tone, trying to soothe Sir Andrew’s frayed nerves, and get him to comply.

Sir Andrew looked back and saw Connor had stopped writhing and coughing.  Instead, he was just lying there, looking more like a corpse than a living person.  His ribs had been shattered by the tree sprite, and his chest was starting to cave in.  He was covered in blood, and his skin was so pale it was almost transparent.  The only thing that still showed he was still alive, was the sound of his rough and pained breathing.

Roland placed his hand on Sir Andrew’s shoulder.  “He’s gone, my friend.  Even if his heart is still beating, he’s gone.  Let me end it.”

Sir Andrew grit his teeth, and slowly, reluctantly, stepped aside.

Roland gripped his sword tight, raised it above Connor, and drove it deep into what remained of the young man’s chest, killing him instantly.

Roland’s party was silent and solemn.  They didn’t move and were just processing what had happened.  At one moment, everyone was fine, and admiring the Divine Scar, and the next, a comrade had been taken by a tree sprite so quickly he hadn’t even the time to resist.

Artorias gave them a few minutes, and Leon grew still.  Eventually, they felt that the silence had gone on long enough, and Artorias walked up to Roland.

“Losing a comrade is never easy, especially when they’re a friend.  I get that, I truly do, but we need to get moving.  Let’s grab his body and get moving.  We can’t get caught out in the forest at night.”

Roland nodded and only took a few more seconds before jumping into action.  First, he swung his sword at the tree the tree sprite had been inhabiting.  With a burst of light, the tree was cut in half.  Roland swung a few more times, and he had a wooden board, long and wide enough to carry Connor.  He grabbed the young man’s body and hauled it onto the board.  Sir Andrew and Adrianos then grabbed the ends, digging in to make handholds with their strong fingers, and lifted the board, with Connor on top.

It didn’t take too long, but Artorias was already starting to get anxious.  Night falls quickly in the vales, and the sun wasn’t waiting around for them.  Once everyone was ready, the group set off again, with Leon taking the lead.

Connor’s body wasn’t tied down, as they didn’t have anything to tie him down with, so the going was much slower than it was before.

The group was more somber, and there wasn’t any talking.  Everyone just stayed quiet and kept walking.

They went north, walking around the Divine Scar, then turned south-east, towards the purple grass clearing, and the fortified compound.

Artorias kept watch on the sky at all times, watching the sun slowly descend through the gaps in the trees.  The sky turned from blue to pink, then to red, and the sun finally fell behind the mountains.  The sky was still relatively bright, but the vale had been plunged into darkness, and the group was still in the forest.

Artorias hurried them along the best he could, but after losing another of their own, Roland’s party had lost much of their motivation.  Normally, battle-hardened soldiers like them wouldn’t be so crushed by the loss of one man, but the forest weighed heavily upon them, and every step became a struggle.

“Shit!  We need to go faster!”  Artorias was on edge, and very nervous now.  The sun was down, and the nocturnal creatures were beginning to stir.  He spread his magic senses out as far as he could and kept alert for anything out of the ordinary.

Finally, the sun completely set, and the sky grew as dark as the forest, lit only by the moon and the stars orbiting distant planes.

Suddenly, Artorias spun around, drawing his sword, and staring into the depths of the forest.  The others all drew their own weapons in response and took up a ready position.  Leon had been walking several dozen feet ahead but fell back to the group.  Sir Andrew and Adrianos carefully set Connor down and joined the others in forming a line facing the same direction as Artorias.

They all stood there, waiting for whatever Artorias had seen, for thirty seconds.  Sir Roger was about to speak up, to ask what was out there, when they all felt a sharp drop in temperature.

Roland’s eyes widened, as he saw an approaching fog surrounded by dark smoky shapes.  He stole a glance at Artorias.

“Are those…”

“Ice Wraiths, and their pet banshees.  A lot of them.”

Once Roland asked his question, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that danger was approaching, so the knights began channeling their magic.

“You there, the ice mage.”  Artorias looked at Dame Sheira.  “Your offensive magic will largely be useless; our opponents are beings of cold and dark.”

Dame Sheira’s face tightened in apprehension, and she stiffly nodded back to Artorias.  She gripped her spear tighter, and ice spread out over arms, torso, and legs, forming armor.  Whereas Sir Andrew could turn his skin into stone, retaining most of his mobility, Dame Sheira couldn’t form icy armor on her joints, or it would severely slow her down in battle.

Out of the darkness came an earsplitting shriek.  Roland’s party had to force themselves not to drop their weapons and cover their ears.  Leon and Artorias were more used to this, but Leon looked extremely uncomfortable, shaking and contorting his face in pain.

Artorias broke from the line and charged out into the forest.  The others in the party watched in shock as he disappeared into the darkness, followed shortly by the sounds of steel colliding with hard surfaces, and more banshee screams.

Banshee screams can really screw with an unprepared mage, deafening them and sending the magic within their blood into turmoil and completely out of the mage’s control.  However, if a mage is expecting it, they can send magic into their ears and safeguard against the terrible sound.  Thus, after the first few shrieks, the group was largely unaffected by them.

Unfortunately, Artorias wasn’t able to hold off all of them, and those that slipped past him came flying out of the darkness and directly at the group.  They were grotesque creatures, made up more of a smoky darkness than actual matter, with empty eye sockets, rotten faces, and dark, skeletal limbs.  But, as terrifying and intimidating as they were, the knights were stronger.

Sir Roland, Sir Andrew, Dame Sheira, and Sir Roger all charged at the banshees, cutting them down with every swing of their weapons.

Leon edged closer to the squires, who were themselves now behind the men-at-arms.  The four squires looked at him, and Luke nodded to him.  Leon returned the nod, and they turned back to the action.

Roland hacked through the banshees with no problem; he was a sixth-tier mage, after all.  The other three were having a bit more trouble, but the banshees still fell before their might.  Their dark fingers scratched at Dame Sheira’s ice armor and Sir Andrew’s stone skin but didn’t so much as leave a mark.  Sir Roger swung his flaming mace around, catching one in a fiery explosion, causing the others to keep their distance from the crackling flame.

Roland was easily the best suited of the four of them to kill the banshees.  They were beings of the dark, and he was a light mage, so his light beams would cut through them like a hot knife through butter.  The banshees pulled back towards the trees a little, but the knights gave chase.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, came a light grey fog and another large group of banshees.  The fog emanated a cold aura, and the ground froze beneath it.  There was a vague shadow of a humanoid being within, and a pair of glowing blue eyes staring at the dumbfounded knights.  This being raised its hand, and all the dozens of banshees began flying around the knights, constantly blocking their view and harassing them, but rarely getting close enough for the knights to strike.  The squires and men-at-arms gradually began to lose track of the knights within the swirling mass of darkness, though a few brief flashes of light from Roland would occasionally pierce through.

Three banshees peeled off from that group and made a beeline for the men-at-arms.  Adrianos was right in front, and he raised his sword high.  The first banshee rushed straight towards him, and Adrianos brought his blade down upon it with all the force and magic he could muster.  The banshee took the sword to the head and fell, dead before it hit the ground.  The darkness that made up most of its body dissipated, leaving only the tiny desiccated corpse of a young child lying at Adrianos’ feet.

He wasn’t distracted, however, as the other two banshees tore past him.  The other men-at-arms managed to stop them, one with a spear to the gut followed by a sword to the throat, and the other ran straight into a shield, bouncing off it and right back at Adrianos.  The man-at-arms with the shield was thrown backward into the squires by the impact, so he couldn’t take advantage of the banshee’s moment of weakness, but Adrianos wasn’t so unfortunate.  He swung his blade and parted the banshees head from its neck.

The ice wraith was watched the entire exchange.  It calmly began advancing, passing the knights still trapped by the banshee horde, and towards Adrianos.

He could feel the cold, and his body began to stiffen.  The hands gripping his sword began to shake, and he almost dropped it.  But, Adrianos stood firm against the monster.  The ice on the ground spread to Adrianos’ feet, and fog slowly surrounded him.  He raised his sword, channeling all of the magic within him into the blade, and brought it down upon the shadowy figure within, only for the ice wraith to catch his blade with its hand.  Adrianos momentarily struggled, trying to free his weapon from the wraith’s frozen fingers, but it wouldn’t budge.  He unsentimentally let it go, then drew a dagger at his belt.  Before he could stab towards the ice wraith, however, the creature swung its fist into his chest like a hammer, throwing Adrianos almost twenty feet away, and most certainly breaking a few ribs.

The wraith turned toward the other men-at-arms, its aura emitting a boundless killing intent that hit them like an avalanche.  One man’s knees buckled, and he collapsed, unconscious.  Another dropped his blade, and fell to his hands and knees, sobbing in fear.  The others still stood, but certainly not firm.  They shook in their boots, and none dared to move any closer.  In fact, the wraith began slowly walking towards them, and they backed up.

Leon and the squires were all but paralyzed with fear.  The wraith’s aura was suffocating to them, and it took everything they had not to immediately pass out.  Kevin and John fell to their knees, while Luke and Victoria barely stayed standing by leaning on each other.  Leon was the best off of the lot, staying on his feet, but he swayed unsteadily like a drunk stumbling home and could barely lift his sword, let alone wield it with any kind of strength.

The wraith reached out for the closest man-at-arms, with its inhumanely thin arm leaving the icy cold fog that surrounded it and giving everyone a good look.  Its arm seemed to be made of ice, with a few blue veins glowing gently beneath the surface.  The freezing fingers closed around the man’s throat and began to squeeze.  No one could move to stop it, and the man-at-arms thought his life was over.

That is, until everyone heard the sound of thunder.  The dark forest lit up from brilliant flashes of lightning, and the shrieks of banshees died away.  A few sounds reminiscent of shattering glass followed, and a bolt of lightning blazed through the trees, tearing apart the banshees surrounding Roland and the three knights, and slammed into the ice wraith grasping the man-at-arms.  The fog was blasted away, revealing a body made up entirely of light blue ice covered in dark blue veins, a face that lacked a nose, and a sword sticking out of its chest.

Of course, it was Artorias’ sword.  He hadn’t wanted to use his magic within sight of the knights, as it might lead to them figuring out who he was, but the ice wraith was starting to threaten his son.  All concerns about his identity vanished, and he summoned all the power his lightning could bring to bear.  The ice wraiths surrounding him were annihilated, and he returned to the group as quickly as his exceptional magic would allow.

Now, with his sword in the final ice wraith, he used his magic one last time, sending prodigious amounts of lightning magic surging through its body.  It didn’t even have the time to scream, as the ice that made up its body cracked and crumbled.  All that was left of the wraith was a pile of ice shards at Artorias’ feet.

With the defeat of the ice wraith, Leon, the squires, and the men-at-arms quickly regained control of themselves.  Artorias immediately went to Leon, only relaxing when he found his son unharmed.

Unfortunately, with most of the banshees around Roland being taken care of by Artorias, the paladin saw Artorias’ magic.  Adrianos, picking himself up while clenching his teeth from the pain, also saw Artorias’ skill with lightning magic.  The same thought came to both.

He’s Artorias Raime!’

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Chapter 27 - The Glade

Chapter 25 - Going East