domingo, 27 de septiembre de 2015

First chapter: Salvation's Dawn

Salvation’s Dawn

Eve of Redemption, Book I


The fortress rose before her, a strong silhouette against the rising sun of a new morning. Finally, after a few days of walking, her destination was within sight. She was unaccustomed to dealing with outsiders, but still she was confident she could get the answers to her peoples’ many questions, and she reminded herself that in this situation, she was the outsider. Her people and those she had traveled to speak with were related distantly, but she reminded herself that her people were feared by outsiders.

She was kirelas-rir, a mystical race whose inherent grasp of arcane magic, attunement with nature, and innate powers of the mind led others – even of the other rir species – to fear them. While they were, at their core, still just rir – a semi-draconic but mammalian folk – they were different, and that led the other rir species to treat them with either deference or contempt.

She held hope in her heart that those she traveled to speak with were of the former variety, but history kept her cautious. The man she went to speak to – one Braxus Gaswell, a General among his kind – was the descendant of a man who’d tried to conquer her people several generations before. She and her people found it unlikely that he sought to repeat his ancestor’s actions, as they had resulted in the death of Gaswell’s forefather, but she had traveled here to make certain of it. Her people were not a warlike people, and though they had tremendous strength as practitioners of the arcane, they preferred not to use that strength to bring harm to others, even in self-defense.
She found it far more likely that Gaswell was simply organizing a standing army in the face of what was going on in the world. Only days before, the Apocalypse had come to an end: the Devil Queen’s forces were decisively defeated and the Devil Queen herself met her end. While most of the fighting had been contained to other continents far from her home, its effects rippled through the ether and could be felt by those attuned to power, whether divine, arcane, or natural in origin. People were uncertain what the future held, and uncertain people frequently made errors out of fear. And that was what she had come here to investigate and, if necessary, prevent. It was also possible that Gaswell sought to lend aid to one of the factions on the mainland, where a civil war had waxed and waned for nearly two centuries. She knew little enough of the war, its purpose, or its results, and thankfully, the fighting had yet to touch this island of Tsalbrin or her own peoples’ small island home. She thought perhaps that there had been some major turning of tides in the mainland war, and that perhaps Gaswell sought to either join the winning side or bolster the losing side. There were many possibilities.
As she approached, she could see that there were several uniformed officers out before the fortress’ front gates, and by the regal dress of one of them, she assumed she had already found General Braxus Gaswell. There were only slight bristles of anticipation amongst the men as she made her approach: they apparently couldn’t see that she was kirelas-rir from the distance between them. If they could, she thought it likely they would be much more on their guard, but she was conscious to not make any sudden or threatening moves, and she kept her hands in plain sight outside the wide sleeves of her robe. There was a vague sense of danger, a tickle of warning in her mind and below her skin as she drew closer to Gaswell and his men.

Something was out of place: she could feel an immense arcane power close by, one that easily rivaled her own. Gaswell’s recruitment letters and fliers had not mentioned seeking those of arcane or divine power, so she was somewhat surprised to find he had an archmage amongst his followers. Her gaze swept side to side as she sought the source of the power, but she had a hard time pinpointing it; it seemed to come from all around her. She slowed and then stopped altogether when she sensed a trap about to be sprung. Her senses did not deceive her: she detected the unnatural tang of demonic power below the surface of that massive arcane power. Gaswell and his men backed away, alarmed, as her hands began to glow and lightning crackled up her sleeved forearms in preparation to defend herself. Her mind worked to pierce the veil before her, to peel it away and reveal the presence of the demon that she had thankfully detected before it was too late. Even as she began to unravel the arcane veil, a wave of concussive psychic force struck her, battering her senses to the point where she lost all sense of equilibrium and the grasp she’d had on her arcane power.

She collapsed and had to work to keep the contents of her stomach down while the world spun violently around her. At last she got most of her wits back about her, but her eyes widened as they fixed on the demon before her. It grinned at her, a chilling flash of fangs, and she quickly realized that this was not one of the minor demons native to her world: this was a minion of the underworld, a demon in pure form. It instilled only the slightest of fear in her, though; she was a master of the arcane, and prepared to demonstrate such to her foe.

Even as she thought so, a second wave of that concussive psionic force slammed into her mind, and she fell to her back, prone, and conscious only by a tremendous amount of will. Her eyes fixed on Gaswell and his men as they approached. She was vaguely aware of the demon standing over her, and even in her shattered mental state, she still found herself surprised when the voice she heard was that of a female. “This one may yet be of use to us; keep her subdued and alive in the dungeon,” the demon commanded. A set of manacles was locked about her ankles, wrists, and neck, connected by sturdy chains, and her mind immediately went blank. She was stripped of all will and nearly all conscious thought. Though her body wouldn’t respond to her desire to cry, she did so inside: she had failed her people, and now there would be no one to warn them of what was to come. There was a demon on Tsalbrin.

Chapter I – The Calling

Kari turned and looked westward. Her companions slowed in their walk as they saw she’d stopped. “Colonel?” Captain Machall prompted. Kari ignored him for a few moments, in part to listen for the sound to come a second time, and in part because she still wasn't used to being called colonel even after eight years. She was a demonhunter, not a soldier, but she, like countless others, had been conscripted to fight in the Apocalypse against the Devil Queen and her forces. Owing to her being one of the highestranking demonhunters, she was afforded a position as an officer, and had been named lieutenant colonel by the brigadier general under whom she'd served.
Still, in her mind she was always just Kari, and she'd preferred even those under her command to call her such. Military decorum, however, had dictated otherwise. After a brief pause, she heard it again: the faint but unmistakable sound of a summons. It had to have come from the city of Barcon, a few hours to the west, and Kari grimaced. She and her companions had avoided the city on their way down from the mountains, and her intent was to go with her subordinate and friend, Captain Lawrence Machall, to his farm on the outskirts of Gavean to help with the late harvest. That plan was dashed as she realized her deity’s priesthood was summoning her, likely for a hunt, and she would have to separate from her companions.
The War was over, the Devil Queen Seril cast down, and her defeat and destruction had brought eight long years of grueling fighting to a close. As she'd walked with her companions toward the town of Gavean, though, Kari wondered what that really meant. For so long her people had battled the Devil Queen’s demonic creations; what would no longer having such an enemy really mean? Would Seril’s death mean the extinction of her creations, or would they continue to be a problem, led by some other evil? Worse yet, would the absence of such an enemy mean that some other evil would arise to fill the void – perhaps even another war among the mortals themselves? Was it too much to hope that they had not just found victory, but peace? Kari sighed. She had hoped to push aside such questions for a while, to take up a simple life helping on Captain Machall’s farm, but the summons of her deity’s priests meant she would enjoy no such respite. The War might have been over, but a part of her understood that as a demonhunter, it would never end for her. She glanced at her companions, who waited patiently for their former lieutenant colonel to give voice to her thoughts, and her draconic lips tightened into a line. It came as little surprise to her that, even after the death of the Devil Queen and the technical ‘end’ of the war, there would still be work to do and demons to be hunted.

It further came as little surprise that she, Karian Vanador, one of the highest ranking demonhunters in the world, was being summoned to look into whatever the priesthood had set their focus upon. “Is everything all right, ma’am?” the captain asked, still maintaining the discipline and respect for chain of command he’d honored all throughout the war. “I’m being summoned by my church,” Kari said at last. “I guess I’m not going to be helping you and your family after all.” Captain Machall and the others were disappointed: that showed plainly enough in their expressions. In those expressions, though, Kari could see that they understood what she'd been thinking just moments before. “You’ve got more important things to do than harvesting,” the captain said. He straightened up and saluted her respectfully, and the others followed suit. “It’s been an honor to serve under you, ma’am.” Kari returned their salute by bumping her fist on her breastplate over her heart and bowing her head: the typical salute of the Demonhunter Order. “It was an honor to serve with you,” she returned. “I guess it was silly of me to think we’d get any rest after the war. Would you do me a favor, captain? Take this sword back to your farm and keep it hidden somewhere. With any luck, I’ll never ask for it back. But let it collect dust somewhere.” She handed the captain a sheathed katana with a brilliantly carved handle of a black dragon with red crystal eyes. His brows rose immediately; there was little mistaking whose it was, but he asked anyway. “Is this the sword you took from–?” “Yes,” she interrupted, in no mood to hear his name. “If someone comes after me looking for it, I want to make sure it’s someplace safe. So keep it out of sight.” “Understood,” he said, and he saluted her again. “Stay safe, colonel.” “You all do the same,” she returned. She bid farewell to her companions, former members of the Thirty-fifth Light Division, and turned to head back west to the city of Barcon. Kari began to jog at a brisk pace. She gathered her hair into a tail to keep it out of her face as it swung about, and she threw it over her shoulder to settle between her black, leathery wings. She turned her ebon eyes skyward briefly and saw that rain was imminent, so she picked up her pace even more. She could smell the rain on the wind and the temperature was dropping; she did not want to be alone on the road when the full storm descended. Reaching the city before nightfall would mean she could find out why she was being summoned by the priests and then indulge herself in a warm bath and a good, solid meal. Winter came early this far south, a fact attested to by the chill wind that danced cruelly across her shoulders, sending her hair whipping to the side. The chill bit deeper than that of the wind, and Kari realized why accompanying Captain Machall back to his family’s farm and helping with the harvest had appealed to her: it would have served to cover up the fact that she had no family of her own, nor even a permanent dwelling. As a demonhunter, Kari’s had always been a life lived on the road, but here and now, so far removed from the life she had known, she felt out of place and out of touch with the world she had just helped save. She had no idea where her road would lead her once she was put on assignment by the priests, but she knew whatever it was would do nothing to dispel eight years’ worth of battle fatigue. Barcon would’ve never been her first choice of refuge, but it was the closest city to where her battalion was stationed at the war’s end. The call of the priesthood would have echoed from every church and temple of her deity until it found her, and thus the church in Barcon had been the first one she’d heard when summoned. Barcon was a haven for organized crime and had been for as long as Kari could remember, but even still it had a well-established temple district, and her deity, Zalkar, the patron of law and the Demonhunter Order, maintained a church even in the corrupt city. Kari figured that for all its problems, Barcon also had warm inns and taverns, which meant baths and strong drinks – both of which she planned to indulge in for as long as she could before heading out on whatever new assignment she received. It had been years since she’d had a bath that wasn't taken in a river or lake and in the company of several hundred others, and alcohol had been all but banned in the battalion throughout the War. The very thought of a potent double-godhammer in her hand as she relaxed in a steaming tub warmed her blood, and Kari tucked her wings close to her back with the thumb claws lightly gripping her shoulders, her head down into the wind. She was able to keep up her brisk pace for some time, testament to a life of physical activity and conditioning, and Barcon came into sight after a while. The first few drops of rain began to pelt Kari on her draconic snout, and her clawed feet kicked up dust from the dirt road as she approached the city. Within minutes she closed the remaining distance, just as the skies opened up and the steady beat of rain upon the earth began. She hoped the guards at the gate would let her through quickly and she’d be in a bathtub by the time the rain became a steady downpour. She slowed her approach as she reached the edge of the firelight from the gates. The rir people had strong eyes and could see well in the dark, but Barcon was a primarily human city and the two guards posted at the southeast gate were both human. Kari was a terra-dracon, a subspecies of the rir people that mutated to grow leathery bat-like wings. They were very rare and, because of the wings, they were quite often mistaken for half-demons, a product of the rir people being crossbred with the Devil Queen’s demons. Even as a high-ranking demonhunter, Kari made certain not to provoke the guards by appearing to be a charging half-demon warrior, especially not so soon after the War’s end. As she approached the gates, the two human guards posted at ground level prepared to stop her. They both had the look of green recruits, and they wore the expressions of men who were not at all happy to be stationed out in the cold rain while their comrades sat inside the warm tower or up in the covered archers’ post. Hands went to hilts as the one on the left held his hand up, and Kari came to a stop before them once she stepped into the firelight. The guards seemed to study her for a few moments before exchanging a glance, and then the one on the left spoke. “Half-demons are not welcome in the city,” he said with the accent common in the southern plains. He was dressed in dull gray chainmail, with a tabard depicting the standard of the city of Barcon – a black heart upon a red field – upon his breast. His pale-skinned, unscarred face was covered with stubble, and his bright green eyes fixed Kari with an unwelcoming stare. Kari reached behind her neck and drew up the chain of her dog tags so that they fell across her breastplate. They were the tags of a demonhunter, enchanted with a latent aura that marked them as authentic to anyone sensitive to the arcane or the divine. “Karian Vanador, Shield of the Heavens, by Zalkar’s grace,” she responded as she stood straight before the men. The guards were no taller than she, though when she expanded her wings she cut a much more imposing figure than either of them. Kari grinned so that her black lips peeled back to show off her pearly-white teeth. “I’m not a half-breed.” “She got white teeth,” the other guard said, approaching. “She ain’t half-demon, she’s terra-dracon.” “I can see that, McKinley,” the first said with a roll of his eyes, but then he saluted Kari respectfully. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, we were just nervous what with…” The demonhunter waved off the explanation. “No need to explain,” she said. “When a winged soldier approaches in the dark, I usually have the same reaction.” She smiled and the guards chuckled as they waved her through the gate. “Enjoy your stay, ma’am,” they said, and Kari stepped into the city. As the gate closed behind her, Kari paused a moment in the shadow of the portal, where she was partially shielded from the increasing beat of the rain. Barcon was a walled city several miles east of the southern end of the great forest, and was surrounded by farmland. The interior of the city was broken up into four districts, and Kari had entered through the southeast gate into the temple district. She wondered if the city had changed at all since her last stay so long before, but she knew of one thing that had not changed: Kaelin Black -- the Earl of Southwick County, the city’s mysterious ruler, and alleged head of the Black Dragon Society -- was still in power. His criminal syndicate was one of the worst in the world, and had a horrid reputation that stretched back over two hundred years. They made Barcon a dangerous city, particularly for those who served in the temple of Kari’s deity. That her deity’s people had maintained a temple to Law in a city of lawlessness so long was a testament to their dedication and courage. Kari looked down the long main avenue of the district and the well-kept facades of the temples stood proudly on both sides of the road. Eternal flames stood in crackling vigil on each of the front terraces, illuminating the white-washed walls and the carved symbols of each deity: the golden axe of Garra Ktarra; the gold cross of Bek the Pious; the shield with the lion’s head that represented Ambergaust and Carsius Coramin; the winged focus of Kaelariel; and at last the light blue balanced forces symbol of Zalkar the Unyielding. There were many more deities amongst the pantheon, but these were some of the most prominent and widely-served amongst humans, who made up the overwhelming majority of Barcon’s population. Kari considered going to the temple first, but she wanted to be clean and smell pleasant when she finally went. She looked left and right down the streets that ran along the outer walls of the city, but saw no obvious signs of an inn, so she walked up the main road. She passed the temples, the places of worship were dark and quiet within as evening settled and meditations began. At the end of the road was an intersection, and a neat and clean inn stood directly across from Kari. There was a sign hanging over the front porch, where several older humans sat smoking pipes as they watched the growing intensity of the rain. As Kari moved closer to read the sign, she saw it was emblazoned with a golden axe coated in black blood, and read The Bloodied Blade. Glad to find an inn dedicated to the god of explorers, Kari nodded briefly to the humans on the porch as they regarded her curiously. She knew it was because of the wings, but soon enough they went back to smoking their pipes and Kari entered the warm interior. A clean, smooth wood floor creaked slightly as she stepped inside and tucked her wings tight to her back, and the eyes of not quite a dozen patrons looked up to mark her briefly before they returned to their mugs or conversations. The clientele was completely human, and Kari took a moment to remind herself that Barcon was a primarily human town; the number of her kind, the rir, was small here. She wiped her wet feet on the rug by the door and proceeded toward the bar. An older, slightly portly human pulled up a tankard and began polishing it as Kari approached, and he marked her with a mostly neutral expression. Once she sat down on one of the high stools before him, he hung the towel over his shoulder and placed the mug down in front of her. He was of fair complexion: the humans of the southern region didn’t have much in the way of skin color, though when compared to her own ebon skin, she guessed the same held true for almost anyone who wasn’t rir. His hair was thinning and beginning to match his grey eyes, and he rubbed his moustache thoughtfully as he flashed a smile at the terra-dracon woman. “What’ll it be?” he asked. Kari ran a hand back through her damp black hair and sighed lightly. “I’ll need a room for at least the night, and a warm bath and a double-godhammer for right now,” she said. She produced a gold coin from her belt purse, set it down, and pushed it toward the innkeeper, but she was surprised when he pushed it back her way. “I’m not a half-demon,” she clarified. The declaration drew interested gazes from the other patrons again momentarily. The barkeep laughed. “Figured that much,” he said with a nod, and he pointed briefly at the dog tags that still hung over Kari’s breastplate. “Don’t see many half-demon demonhunters. But your coin is no good here.” He reached under the counter and produced a long, slender iron key. “The inn’s empty right now; most folks that have been holed up here in recent months have finally begun making their way home, what with the war being over finally. So you can have the master suite, up the stairs at the end of the hallway. I’ll have Millie fix you a hot bath.” “Thank you,” Kari said. The barkeep pulled up a glass from under the counter to replace the tankard, and he began pouring shots of dragon’s breath, furean vodka, "elven moonshine", gutsplitter, fire-ice, and good old-fashioned tequila. It wasn’t unusual for the common folk to provide basic goods and services to demonhunters free of charge, but Kari found it surprising that the barkeep could afford to so soon after the War, which had no doubt severely hurt the man’s business. “You got a name?” she prompted him. The man fixed her with a curious gaze before the smile returned to his face. “David Marrack,” he said. “Folks around here just call me Dave. Welcome to the Bloodied Blade. Forgive my manners; it’s been an interesting week in the city. I was just trying to figure out your accent – it’s new to my ears, and these ears are pretty old. Had ‘em all my life.” Kari chuckled. “Solaris, over on Terrassia,” she said, and the barkeep acknowledged his surprised with an appreciative nod. “I was born and raised on Terrassia,” she continued, “Only came over here to Askies to attend the Academy at DarkWind and more recently for the War.” Dave fixed her with another curious stare, and as he put the finishing touches on Kari’s potent drink, he slid it toward her. “If you’ll forgive my saying so, ma’am, you look a tad young to have attended the Academy and fought in the war.” Kari couldn't argue that, but didn't feel like explaining. “It’s a long story,” she said. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to take my drink up to my room and bathe now.” “Not at all; I’ll send Millie up with the hot water right away,” David said, and he turned toward the door to the back room. The demonhunter rose from her stool and made her way to the stairs in the corner of the inn, and she marked well the eyes of the other patrons as they followed her. Always it was the same: initially they saw the wings and the solid black coloration and assumed she was a halfdemon. When it came to light that she was not only terra-dracon but also a demonhunter, the suspicions and hostility melted away immediately, giving way to both trust and admiration. Kari figured she should be used to it, as it was something she had dealt with for so long, but then she wondered if anyone ever got used to such treatment. The first sip of her potent drink sent a burning heat down the center of her chest as it slid into her belly like liquid fire, and she let out a contented sigh as she reached the top of the stairs. The upper level was comprised of a single, long hallway that ran lengthwise across the inn, with four doors on each side and a single door at the end. Based on the size of the inn from the outside, it was apparent the smaller rooms were single-person domiciles, and she wondered exactly how large the “master” suite at the end was going to be. At the very least it would be large enough to house a bathtub, as the innkeeper didn’t tell her to take a bath in the commons, if indeed there even was one. Her quiet footsteps brought her quickly to the end of the hallway, and the door swung open easily as she unlocked it, revealing a large bedroom of impressive décor. The bed, large enough for two, was centered along the right hand wall, flanked by small nightstands with lanterns, and it was covered in clean, crimson sheets. Four pillows sat up against the headboard, and just looking at them tempted Kari to lie down to sleep as she took another intoxicating sip of her drink. Instead she crossed the room to the large double window that looked out over the edge of the bazaar, the neighboring shops, and the eastern part of the city, and after a moment Kari closed the crimson drapes. An armoire stood against the left wall from the doorway, along with a reading chair upholstered in the same color scheme as the rest of the room. Kari moved to the wardrobe and placed her traveling pack and cloak within, then secured it. She took another sip of her drink, its numbing effect beginning to loosen up her sore muscles, and she inspected the pictures that hung at precise intervals on the bare white walls, but she had no idea who any of the people pictured were. She walked around the bed and placed her drink on the nightstand before she began to remove her armor and lay the pieces neatly on the floor beside the bed. She decided she would wash the entire suit later, and then perhaps stop in one of the local smithies to buy something to polish it with the next day. Kari’s padded shirt and pants came off soon after, and she tossed them along with her undergarments into a pile by the window. They were filthy, and she failed to suppress a grimace at how dirty she was, excusing herself only because she’d spent the previous couple of weeks coming down out of the mountains and through the riverless portion of the southern forest. Indeed, the only washing she received in those weeks was that of the autumn rainfall, which was neither sufficient nor pleasant. She stood naked and impatient as she waited for Millie – who she assumed was the innkeeper’s wife – to deliver the hot water for her bath. She rubbed her grimy arms once each as she approached the bathtub, only to find there was already water in it. It was nearly halfway full, so she tested the water briefly with her fingers: it was clean and lukewarm at best, but she climbed in anyway and lay back on the angled end to put her feet up on the other edge. A knock came at the door and she called for whomever it was to simply come in. An elder human woman approached and smiled at her. She handed the demonhunter a bar of soap and then poured a bucket of hot water into the tub, and Kari swirled her hands around to mix in the warmth. After staring at Kari for a moment, Millie walked over and retrieved the drink off of the nightstand, and placed it on the floor beside the bathtub. “Would you like more hot water?” Millie asked, the southern accent much more homey and charming when combined with the sweet voice of the older woman. Kari looked the human woman over briefly and didn’t miss the stare she was receiving in return. Among the rir, nudity was neither taboo nor shameful, but it was something that the humans still found curious and awkward, even after three thousand years of assimilation. Millie was not an unattractive woman, though it was sometimes hard for Kari, as a rir, to judge what humans considered attractive. Millie was aging well, and based on her figure she lived both well and comfortably. Her sharp green eyes were studying Kari carefully, and the terra-dracon woman accepted it as the curiosity of a human who probably rarely saw rir in the inn, let alone in the bathtub. “Just to rinse, and a couple of towels and a scrub brush if you have one,” Kari replied at last. “Wings are a pain to wash, you know?” “Of course, m’lady,” the human woman said, though Kari reminded herself that the woman certainly wouldn't know. Millie bowed her head and made her way from the room. Once Millie left, Kari began washing herself in earnest. The soap was smooth and smelled fruity, and she practically purred as the grit and the smell of sweat and weeks on the road began to be replaced by something lady-like. She almost laughed at herself as she thought the last; she always considered herself closer to being one of the boys than a lady, and her muscular build usually made others feel the same way. Kari stood up so she could properly wash her tail and backside, and then bent over to soak her hair. She stood up straight again and began washing her mane, using her small claws to untangle what knots she could before taking a brush to it. While she let the soap settle on her scalp, she reached over the side and picked up her drink, and she finished it in a single, long swallow before placing the glass back down on the floor. A knock came at the door a minute later as Millie returned with the towels, scrub brush, and a bucket of water for rinsing. Kari wasn’t sure whether to make any effort to cover herself as she stood there, but ultimately she decided against it. There was a brief moment where the human woman simply stared at her, but it was a stare Kari was fairly used to: the one that clearly said the person was impressed by her muscular build and chiseled stomach. Kari reached to take the brush from the human woman, but Millie instead walked around behind the demonhunter, took up the soap, and began to gently lather and scrub the backsides of Kari’s wings. Kari thanked her and took up the bucket of water from beside the tub to rinse the soap from her hair. She stood still for a couple of minutes while the human washed her wings, and then Millie left once again to get more rinse water. Kari sank back down into the tub but made sure to keep her hair outside, and she scrubbed the insides of her wings. Being clean made her feel like a woman, but as the thought entered into her mind, it brought with it the disturbing reminder that she was a lonely woman, without a home or a family, and she wondered exactly where her assignment would take her. Her thoughts turned to her commander, Brigadier Kris Jir’tana, who’d made no secret of his attraction to her throughout the eight years they worked together in the war. Why had he disappeared so suddenly after the war, when she was finally ready to consider courtship? Why did her refusal to start a sexual relationship in the middle of a war surprise him? Kari sighed, closed her eyes, and rested her head against the warming metal of the tub, and she wondered why she was in such a position again. Hadn’t she already served her time, giving the world and the gods a lifetime of selfless service once before? Hadn’t she earned that rest, in that place of warmth and sunshine, apart from the struggles and pains of mortality? What right did Trigonh have to rip her from there, to thrust the mantle of war upon her shoulders once again, to drag her back down into a lonely life lived on the road for who knows how long? What right did he have – indeed, what right did even the gods possess to allow him to bring her back against her will, citing some misguided belief that he was in love or that she could ever love him in return? The alcohol settled in deeper, warming her even further, and Kari wiggled her numbing toes in the water. But the amusement didn’t soothe the ache in her heart or the uncertainty of her future. She’d been lucky enough to survive the eight year war, and only days removed from it, she was already about to be assigned to another dangerous hunt that could cost her her life. While she wouldn’t be averse to returning to that place of warmth and comfort, she recalled the amount of pain that had preceded going there the first time. She had died, a slow, horrible, rotting death that took twenty-seven years to come to fruition, and though she was with friends when it finally came, it was something she had faced alone. Alone. The demonhunter sighed again, and she held her dog tags up to read their inscription: Karian Vanador, Shield of the Heavens, T03172849. Was that the entirety of what she was to her own deity? Why did the thought of serving a higher power not bring her comfort? Why did she feel apart even from him, from his church and his power, when as a demonhunter she was supposed to be an extension of his right hand, his justice, and his mercy? She closed her eyes and shook away the thoughts; if the Unyielding got the impression her faith and conviction were falling apart, she wouldn’t even have a job – and her job was all she had. She was simply tired, and assumed Zalkar would understand. Millie knocked on the door again as she returned with two more buckets of warm water in her left hand, and another drink in her right. “Something about you seemed off, so I thought maybe another drink would help you relax. It’s just not right for a pretty thing like you to look so out of sorts,” she said as she placed the buckets beside the tub and handed the terra-dracon woman the drink. “Pretty?” Kari repeated hesitantly. She’d never considered herself very pretty, but to be called so by a human was even more unusual. Though the two species assimilated easily and got on well, they were still vastly different in terms of physical attractiveness. “Och, don’t kid yourself, girl. You’re gorgeous as rir go,” Millie answered with a sincere smile. She looked about the room. “Did you finish your wings, or can I help you rinse off? And would you like me to clean your clothes and your armor?” “Wings are done,” the demonhunter replied, and she stood up once more. “Would love help with everything else. I have to warn you though, my clothes are pretty gross.” Millie hardly seemed put off. “I wash the linens here,” she said. “Dirt and sweat are nothing new to me.” She helped Kari rinse and dry herself, and then she gathered up the dirty clothes and armor as she prepared to leave. “My word, this armor is light. Is this paluric?” “Aye,” Kari said, and she moved to sit on the corner of the bed to let the air dry her more thoroughly. “It was a gift from a friend, a long, long time ago.” The human woman’s eyes widened slightly, and she let out a short laugh. “Must’ve been some friend,” she said with a wink. She closed the door behind her as she left. The reaction was not completely unexpected: paluric armor was exceedingly rare and worth a king’s ransom, and few people could ever believe that someone had given it to her. It was extremely lightweight, almost completely unrestrictive, and near-impenetrable; that particular suit had protected Kari throughout much of her previous and current lives. Kari took a sip of her new drink, and chuckled quietly as another knock sounded on the door. “What did you forget?” she called. She was surprised when a male terra-rir came through the door instead of the human woman. The terra-rir were the most common of the rir species, and the one from which terradracon were an offshoot. The man was about a hand taller than Kari, well toned and handsome, with the white hair and green eyes most common to their people. His hair was trimmed short, which was typically a way of saying one was not a fighter but perhaps a professional soldier; rir fighters wore their hair long as a testament to how long they’d been fighting without being beaten or killed, while soldiers tended to wear their hair short in a military cut. Kari wondered if this man had been a soldier at some point. He wore a tunic and a pair of off-white trousers, and he stepped into the room and closed the door quietly behind him. “Hello,” he said softly. “My name is Aaron, and I was wondering if you might like some company for the night.” Kari's brows rose; she had used the services of prostitutes before in her prior life, but never had she had one come up to her room and proposition her. She took a sip of her drink to stall. To find a male rir prostitute in a human city was unusual for several reasons. “You’re a mule?” she asked rhetorically, and he nodded silently in response. A mule was what a male rir prostitute who'd had himself fixed in some way was called; they were uncommon anywhere. As a species the rir were not very sexually active, but there were always exceptions and mules made their living providing services to females who wanted a partner for a night rather than a mate. On occasion they even provided their services to human women, though the differences between the two species made such an event rather rare. “I’m not interested, but thank you.” Aaron smiled and made no effort to mask the fact that he was admiring her naked form. “If it’s the price that concerns you, my lady, I would offer myself to you freely,” he said. Kari blushed, and then she laughed and nodded at the compliment. “No, it’s the sex I’m not interested in, sorry.” “Does my lady prefer to be alone then, or would she be content with some company for the evening?” he pressed. It was clear he was attracted to her, which struck Kari as odd since as a mule, he was unlikely to ever attract a mate. Why he was interested in spending an evening with a woman who wanted nothing sexual from him was a mystery, and the fact that he would do so for free only compounded the point. Ultimately, Kari figured he was probably just as lonely working in a human town as she was stopping in it. She took some pity on him, though she wasn’t really interested in anything he could provide her with. “I’ll only be in town for the night, most likely,” she said, trying to be tactful. “A night with a beautiful woman of my own kind would still be more than welcome, my lady,” he said, confirming her suspicions about him simply being lonely. Part of her wondered if he really found her beautiful or if that was simply flattery. She guessed he might try to persuade her to indulge in his other services later in the evening, but decided not to dwell on it. There was something else that caught her attention more at that moment. “Stop calling me lady,” she said. “My name is Kari.” He approached and knelt down before her, and she had to make a conscious effort not to brush his hands aside when he took up her dog tags to inspect them. “You are a demonhunter?” he asked. “That makes you more a lady, not less.” Kari shook her head, put her drink on the floor and rose to her feet, intending to politely show him to the door before he could say anything else. Aaron straightened up before her but kept his hands to himself, and there was something in his smile and his eyes that put her at ease. Kari put her hands on his chest, and she could feel the sculpted muscle beneath the fabric of the shirt. She pulled him close to her just by touching him, and he put his hands gently on her hips as though preparing to dance. For a moment she felt a release from some of her tensions as she remembered the simple joy of a man’s warmth under her hands. She expected him to make his case for her more forcefully, but he was a perfect gentleman, his hands maintaining their soft perch on her hips as he breathed lightly against the side of her neck. After a couple of minutes, he slid his hands up her back, and his fingers traced curiously along the muscles of her wings before his hands met between them and pulled her close into him. He smelled good, he felt warm, and for a moment, Kari thought perhaps she should indulge herself. Her thoughts were interrupted by yet another knock, and Millie came in without waiting for Kari’s invitation. She stopped in surprise as she saw the two embracing. “Oh, dear me! Forgive my interruption,” she said. Kari waved off the apology as she separated from Aaron and motioned toward the buckets and brush. “I see you’ve met Aaron. He’s a sweetheart.” Aaron motioned Millie out of the room with his eyes, and after nodding politely to the two, Millie left and closed the door behind her. Aaron turned back to Kari, who sat on the corner of the bed again. He stared into Kari’s eyes and leaned down to kiss her on the base of the neck. She practically melted at his touch, and he knelt before her. He kept his gaze steady with hers, smiled, and took her hands in his. “If you are not interested in sex, how about a bedmate to at least keep you warm?” “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Kari returned honestly. She knew how to enjoy a night with a man, but to her thinking, now was too soon after… Aaron shook his head. “I am not trying to force myself upon you, lady, I am simply lonely. Few had money to spend during the war, and this city’s inns have been largely empty since the war’s end. If you find reason not to trust me, I will leave, only say the word.” Kari took his face in her hands. “It’s not you I don’t trust,” she said. She started to elaborate, but bit her lower lip, sighing lightly. Something changed in his expression, though Kari wasn’t sure he quite understood, even as he answered, “I understand. Have you eaten? Would you care to share a meal downstairs?” “Maybe after I get back from the church,” she answered, which drew a curious look from him. “I’ve been summoned by the priests; I shouldn’t keep them waiting. I only came here to have a bath before I go see them.” Aaron nodded. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched Kari open her pack and pull out some leisure clothes. She got dressed quickly and belted on her swords despite the fact that she had no armor. Soon she was ready to travel across to the church, and Aaron followed her to the common room but no farther. Kari exited the inn hastily and crossed the intersection to Zalkar’s church, the first one on the left as she came out from the inn. She climbed the steps to the front porch slowly and placed her hand over the blue eternal flame burning brightly on the top step. After a few seconds, she withdrew her hand, unharmed, and she breathed a sigh of relief: Zalkar was not displeased with her for her nagging doubts. The front door of the church swung open quietly, and as Kari closed it behind her, her eyes adjusted to the lower light inside. Most of the people within were seated with their heads bowed in prayer, while a couple of acolytes whispered over the altar. Everyone in the church was human, which came as no surprise in the human town, and doubly so because Zalkar himself was a human deity. As the god of law and justice, he attracted many who worked in the judicial systems, city watch, and other law enforcement to his service, and nearly all those who worked in the justice system at least paid homage to the human deity. He was likewise the patron of the Demonhunter Order, which worked alongside his clergy. Kari wiped her feet on the mat inside the door and looked around for whoever might be the head of the church. The inside was simple and to the point, just as its patron preferred: the walls were bare and white with long, unstained windows high up to let the sun in. Benches were arranged around the room in a horseshoe-like pattern, with the altar at the open end of the arrangement and the center of the floor kept clear for the head priest when he wished to give a sermon. High upon the wall behind the altar, in light blue, was the image of a sword with balanced forces striking it from opposite sides. This symbol of the balanced forces, Zalkar’s personal insignia, depicted the Sword of Truth and the two balanced tenets of his most holy doctrine: Love justice, but do mercy. After a few moments, Kari approached the altar and bowed down. She rose and fished her dog tags out from beneath her shirt, and upon seeing them, one of the acolytes gestured toward a door on the back wall. Kari nodded and made her way to the door, where she knocked politely and was welcomed to enter. Beyond was a simple study lined around with bookshelves, with a hearth on the north wall that had a warm fire going. The walls showed a near-purple reddish color where there were no shelves. The floor was covered with a masterfully-crafted rug of beautiful design, and it almost shamed Kari to put her dirty feet upon it. A mahogany desk stood centered near the far wall, covered with papers and more books, with a lantern on each corner. An elder human sat reading in a padded chair that matched the coloration of the walls. After a few moments he looked up and studied Kari briefly before a smile creased his face and he gestured toward one of the padded chairs before the desk. Kari moved forward but stopped before she seated herself. She saluted the human by touching her fist over her heart and then bowing her head. “Karian Vanador, by Zalkar’s grace, Shield of the Heavens,” she said formally, and the man rose to his feet. “I am Devin Sanstrom, head of this small church,” he said. “I am no high priest, so you needn’t salute me, young lady. Please, have a seat.” He gestured toward the chairs once more, and Kari sat down. She guessed Devin must have seen at least sixty years, his hair gray but well tended, while his eyes and the corners of his mouth were creased with what could have been worry or laugh lines. Given the work that Zalkar’s church performed, she guessed it was more likely the former. Light blue robes completed his look, its style and color popular among priests of the pantheon. Devin unlocked a drawer to his right and pulled out a small bag, the coins within jingling, and he placed it on the desk before the terra-dracon female. “Firstly, I understand you haven’t been paid since the start of the war,” he said. “Unfortunately, the work of the Unyielding and the plight of the common people in the wake of the war have left little in our coffers. I can offer you but a single month’s pay.” “I wouldn’t expect more than that,” Kari said. She tied the small purse to her belt just behind her right scabbard. “Honestly I’m surprised the church can afford to give me this much.” “It was good of you to answer our summons so quickly,” Devin said, sorting through the papers on his desk before he picked up one in particular and read it again thoroughly. “Master Attir Surallis in Sarchelete has requested you travel there to meet him at the earliest time. It seems that even with the end of the war, individual problems not necessarily related to the Devil Queen or her schemes are already arising. Master Surallis has something he would like you to look into, as you are now among the highest ranking hunters in the Order.” Karian swallowed uneasily. She was only one of the highest ranking demonhunters because most of those higher in rank had been killed in the war, not the least of whom was Jason Bosimar, the former head of the Order, called the Avatar of Vengeance. She was also being sent to see Attir Surallis, the high priest of Zalkar’s entire church worldwide, based in Sarchelete, the most holy city of the rir people. If Kari was being called to speak directly with him, then the mission she was being assigned was not only being kept a secret, but it was also exceedingly dangerous. She considered that it spoke volumes about how much her deity trusted in her, which gave her a bit of comfort after the doubts she’d felt earlier in the night: she realized the potential to bring glory to her lord and thus further meaning to her life and future. “I’ll do as our lord commands, of course, Master,” she said formally. “I can tell you this much, also,” the human said as he rose to his feet. “The Unyielding offers you a promotion should you be successful in this endeavor.” That took Kari by surprise as well; promotions within the Order were not handed out arbitrarily, but only after consistent service or overwhelmingly important missions. While it was possible her work during the War was considered service enough, it was the only thing she'd done since her resurrection, and then not directly for the Order or the church. “As he wills, so shall I do,” she replied formally as she shook the offered hand of the priest, and he came around the desk to walk her to the door. “Our lord preserve you and guide you to victory. Love justice, but do mercy, lady.” Kari bid Master Sanstrom farewell and, after bowing once more at her lord’s altar, she made her way outside to the streets. The foot traffic coming down Temple Street was heavier, as those who could afford their dwellings in the nicer part of the city made their way home, either from the bazaar or their jobs in other parts. Kari considered her orders and realized the safest way to cross the mountains to Sarchelete would be to sign on as a guard for either a merchant or pilgrim caravan. Pilgrims heading to the holy city were quite common, especially when winter was approaching. Most made their treks during the deep winter, to coincide with the traditional New Year which occurred on the day of the winter solstice, but the holy city was very crowded at that time, leading many to make their journeys when things were calmer. Kari had only ever been to the holy city once before, in her previous life, but she’d seen it as a glowing speck on the horizon as she looked out from the rocky highlands where her unit was stationed near the end of the War. The issue with signing on with a caravan was that they usually left from the northwest district: the seat of Kaelin Black’s power and where his ebon tower stood in silent vigil over the city. As a demonhunter, Kari was also a law enforcement agent, expected to uphold and enforce the law wherever she went even if the local authorities couldn’t – or wouldn’t. She thought it likely that a trip into the northwest district of what was, since the fall of Oge, probably the most corrupt city in the world could very easily turn out to be more dangerous than hunting demons. Kari chuckled at herself and returned to the inn. Aaron sat alone at one of the tables in the commons, and Kari joined him. The two shared a meal together. The common room had emptied out since Kari had gone to the church, so they had the service of Dave and Millie to themselves. The innkeeper served them roasted pork with buttered greens and fresh bread, things Kari had not enjoyed at all during the eight years of the war. Among the camps her unit had set up during their almost continuous movement through the mountains, she had eaten little but tough bread, old cheese, and whatever meats the hunters and scouts could fell without depopulating the wildlife. While she, as an officer, never wanted for food during the entire war, neither did she ever eat to excess, and rarely did she allow herself to enjoy even such a simple thing as food in the middle of what she’d considered a massive tragedy. Kari and Aaron made small talk, though he was shy about himself, and Kari guessed he didn’t want her to feel as though he was bragging about his sexual adventures. He was more interested in her descriptions of the war, or at least what little she was willing to share. Kari stayed fairly quiet on the fighting, as the vast majority of things she had seen were things she would rather forget. Her unit, traveling through the Barrier Mountains, avoided most of the attrition-based war that had so dominated the open plains and lighter forests of the heartlands. In the more mountainous terrain, their objectives were to free those cities already captured and occupied by the Devil Queen’s forces, or to waylay serilian demons as they tried to cross the mountains toward the holy city of Sarchelete on the west coast. Aaron listened enraptured as Kari described Brigadier Kristofer Jir’tana, more commonly called simply The Warlord and whose brilliance on the battlefield was already widely known. Son of the archangel Kaelariel, he was a student under the brilliant Celigus Chinchala – a demon king considered by many to be the greatest tactical mind across the cosmos – and Kris led his brigade on a spectacular campaign, suffering less than a thousand casualties over the course of the eight year war. Kris’ instincts and ability to remain calm and collected even in the face of a blitzing assault saved the brigade from certain destruction on more than one occasion, and Kari was very proud to have served under him, something she made sure to accentuate. Aaron seemed especially interested in how she spoke of Celigus Chinchala, and Kari knew that it was because Chinchala was a demon king and she was a demonhunter. While most people knew that Chinchala had long ago turned on his own kind and allied himself with the pantheon, most people were still surprised to hear how demonhunters reacted to such a creature being their tentative “ally.” Aaron said it reminded him of an old saying about war making strange bedfellows, or something of the sort. It was a close enough comparison; Kari had met Chinchala once in her prior life, but even still she was at a loss as to what to make of him. A part of her believed that no demon – or demon king, for that matter – could ever truly be turned, and that he would one day betray the pantheon. That being said, he’d been instrumental in the Light forces winning the Apocalypse, and thus Kari granted him the same respect she would anyone else, demon king or not. Three more drinks and a comical tale about her friend Captain Machall later, Kari felt quite relaxed and retired to her bedroom. Aaron followed after her but stopped in her doorway, and only after staring at him for a couple of minutes did Kari realize just what her hesitation was. Kris isn't here anymore, she thought. He left without a word. With that, she invited Aaron in. Millie had emptied the bathtub some time during dinner, and fresh towels sat on the reading chair for the next day’s bath. The pillows were fluffed and the blankets turned down already, so Kari undressed herself, and Aaron did likewise and slid smoothly under the sheets. Kari moved around the bed and slid in, and she lay on her side to face him. “What are you thinking?” he asked her, leaning on his elbow and a pillow to prop himself up. He touched her hair lightly, fiddling with the shorter strands in the front that curved over her forehead while the rest of the long, smooth silky black lay straight across her pillow. “Can I trust you?” she asked simply. Aaron ran his fingers along her jaw and nodded silently. He put out the lantern on his side of the bed and Kari did the same. He gave Kari a single chaste kiss on the side of the snout. She turned away from him on her side and he pulled her in tight, laying one hand protectively over her belly with his other arm folded under his pillow. He bid her sweet dreams, and within minutes the two fell asleep, thanks in part to the amount of alcohol they had consumed. Aaron had no problem cuddling with her, as she kept her wings tucked tight to her back as she slept. The night was quiet except for the occasional toll of a bell to mark the hour and the gentle tapping of the rain on the roof and window. Around the fifth hour, Kari awoke with a start, and she sat up slowly and wondered why there was a naked man with her. She looked around for a few minutes to get her bearings, and then lay back down beside him as she recalled where she was. She had grown so accustomed to being awakened halfway through the night for watch duty that not being disturbed caused her to wake up nervous. The room was quiet and the bed was warm, and Kari took advantage of both and went back to sleep.

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