Chapter 137 The Storm after the Storm
The sun rose slowly over the town of Vihal, illuminating the carnage left behind by a night's worth of gruesome warfare. Corpses littered the ground, both human and demon. Eyes open in fear, anger and sheer ferocity, lifeless and in parts already infested by the first fleas, infesting the newfound source of food. The sun wouldn't do the smell any good, people with lower Vitality would have to stay inside to evade an infection and possible sicknesses.
Claire stood upon the armory, looking around to find any last surviving demons, her eyes scanning through the burnt and frozen corpses, bits and pieces left behind by the mages taking the vantage position on top of the armory, the demons having been unable or too stupid to get up to the flat top of the building. The smell was already bad but it would get worse as time went on. A good thing they had some surviving earth and fire mages. Burning pits would do the trick but first they had to take stock of how many they lost, how many they still had.
“The rangers report no more surviving demons, the last groups were led here and taken care of.” the guard captain said, walking up next to her with a notebook in his hand. He was injured, a bloodied gash in his armored shoulder showed as much, as did the lessened stability in his gait.
“Here the report on all survivors. The evacuation was completed in time, none of the people there were injured. Regarding the fighting personnel it doens't look quite as good.” the man finished, handing her the notebook. Claire took it and nodded to the man.
“Go see one of the healers, at least they're getting some experience out of this.” she said, the man chuckling in response.
“Not the only one there, I got ten levels from this one. Still, dying isn't worth it.” he said and Claire had to agree to that. Although she herself had to ignore that kind of thinking from time to time to get to level two hundred. A certain risk was always involved, it was just a simple calculation to determine the worth of a dungeon expedition or monster hunt. Claire had other reasons for coming to Vihal, her calculations were forgotten quickly, the pages in her own notebook would soon be burned, her less than ideal outlook for the city and survival rates would only lower morale and her standing should anybody come across them.
'Let's get to organizing...' she thought as she flipped through the pages, seeing all the marked people who were either heavily injured or died. A good amount had survived, mostly the people she had seen die in the initial break through the gate were included in the victims. Sadly some of them had been capable warriors or mages but she had to work with whatever she could. Around her people were discussing, some laughed and cheered, the victory still fresh on their minds. The information on the losses would spread soon and then the work required to refortify the city and prepare for another attack.
It would be good to start soon. “Everyone, downstairs. We'll discuss the next steps.” she said rather loudly so that everyone still standing outside would hear her. She made sure the people looking for survivors in the field of corpses heard her as well.
She closed her eyes as the sun shone onto the town, battered but not broken, Claire allowed herself a quick smile before she put on her business mask again. She was still wearing her helmet of course and sighed, tucking the notebook under her arm before she walked down the stairs to the big room below. The governing body was present, as were all the warriors and mages who had taken part in the fights. The rest of the people, children, elderly, unsuitable classes or simply too low leveled people were further down in the armory's cellar where enough food and water was stored to give them at least two weeks. Preparations that now seemed a little excessive but Claire's plans proved to bring them victory, her influence had grown and it showed.
Compared to the previously uncertain, fearful or downright hostile looks she had gotten from some of the warriors, this time they all looked towards her with respect, nods came from a lot of them as she entered from above. Claire stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looking around and making sure that the whole room would be able to hear her while not taking a central position that would threaten the governor's authority. If there was one thing she didn't need, it was more enemies. She breathed in a deep berath, clearing her mind and focusing on the tasks at hand.
The torches in the room were flickering from the winds coming in through the open gates, the fighting force of Vihal was gathered and focused on the black clad mage standing before them. A stranger to most and yet they looked upon her for guidance. Most of the people were aware that they wouldn't be standing here today had it not been for her.
“Alright people.” she started, smiling under her helmet. “We won!” she shouted, a thing she didn't do very often, at least not outside an active fight. Lifting her arm she waited for a moment before the first other voice joined in.
“We won!” a man shouted, followed by another.
“Vihal stands!” someone else joined in until at least most of the people got their voices in, the joy of survival against a terrifying enemy like the demon horde spreading like a forest fire through all the people present. Claire let them go on for half a minute before she lifted her arm again. The people calmed down rather quickly, intent on listening to the Shadow's Hand mercenary before them.
“I am proud of all of you. We managed to defend Vihal and we will continue to do so. The next few days will be hard, perhaps harder than even the fight last night.” she said and let that sit for a moment.
“We have a lot to do but all of you have at least some more levels and stats from the fights so we'll put that to good use.” she said, getting out the notebook still tucked under her arm.
“The injured will be taken care of by the healers. All rangers, scouts and rogue like classes spread out and look for surviving demons and humans. Take care of both. Afterwards meet at the front gate, send one to inform me and the rest spread out on the walls. Report any demon or monster activity immediately. The armory will be the central governing space for the moment. Any objections?” she asked, looking towards Lord Felt, the governor of the town.
“No objections.” he simply stated.
“Good, then move out. We'll inform you about further steps as we go, including food and rest.” she said, several people in the room nodding and moving the the exits.
“Earth mages, close up the main gate and any other weaknesses in the walls. Fire and water mages take care of any burning buildings. Afterwards report back, we'll have to make pits to burn the corpses. Move out.” she said, another group leaving the room.
“The rest, prepare food and help out where you can. Afterwards move the demon corpses into piles. Smiths, enchanters and rune mages to me, we'll have to rebuild the defenses for further attacks.” she said, everyone spreading out into groups, some of the mages moving towards her. Claire just hoped the next attack would take at least two days. As long as the people didn't have rest, they were not ready to fight. For another couple hours she needed all the man power she could get, after that they would organize shifts. Another headache started to bloom in her mind, a wonder she didn't have a Headache Resistance already. Claire chuckled at the thought as she motioned the mages to follow her, to prepare a workspace for them.
Damian shivered at the morning breeze, rubbing his hands together to create at least a little bit of heat. If he continued to progress as quickly as in the past month, he wouldn't have to worry about cold weather soon enough. A rustle behind him made him draw his bow, turning around to see a familiar face.
“Relax, it's just me.” the man clad in leather armor said. Brown hair and a scar covering near all his face, the beginnings of a beard showing on his chin. He smelled and Damian kept his bow drawn for just that reason. Accidents could happen and then they would be rid of the freeloader but he remembered Geoff, he didn't take kindly to anybody harming their own.
The tension in his bow string was slowly reduced and the arrow put back into the simple quiver on his back.
“Any news? Some of the demons came to the camp and the boss wants to know the situation.” the man in front of him asked. More a boy in Damian's eyes but still, he would grow in their group, still there was food plenty and with the demon invasion it was rather simple to get more.
“Rangers and scouts are manning the walls again, they actually managed to destroy the demon horde. I think tonight would be the perfect moment to engage, they're probably all exhausted and I'm sure their numbers were reduced by at least half considering the demons' numbers.” he told the man who grunted in response before spitting on the ground.
“Aight, guess you can come back too then or do you wanna do more scouting?” he asked, Damian shaking his head. Scouting was dangerous, he wanted to stay with the main group for as much as possible.
“Good, good. Let's go back then.” the man said, taking a look towards the town, smoke rising above it as the sun rose slowly on the horizon.
No attack came during the day. The gates closed off for now with earth and rock, spikes had been formed around the town and what little numbers of runed plates they could manufacture in the day were distributed around the main entrances to the town. At least two thirds of the fighters and mages were resting, some of them had the privilege to have slept already. Claire was sitting on a small stool inside a stone watchtower that overlooked a big part of the town.
The pits were still burning, hundreds of demons placed into them and reduced to ash. The smell was horrible but as the day progressed she got used to it more. A couple more days at most and it would be gone. Water mages were still walking through the streets, cleaning up the blood and guts still littering the place. The barracks were filled again. Claire had the fighters distributed around the town again to be able to respond more quickly than with a centralized group at the armory. Any organized enemy would be better fought at using the walls and not a single building. Luckily the demons didn't have any explosion or earth mages among them, otherwise last night's battle would've turned into a massacre.
She had allowed herself two hours of rest earlier in the day, when all the necessary jobs had been distributed, some of them already complete. One good thing about losing people was that the food would last longer. She didn't want to go as far as to cure or store any of the demon meat, at least not yet. The sun was already setting as she continued to scribble in her notebook. She had visited her mother earlier as well, the woman had gotten a separate place in the armory's cellar, with furniture and items from their home. A couple nice women agreed to take care of her. When she checked on her she wasn't stressed, her empty gaze as it had always been. She wouldn't want her to come out while people were still fighting, on the other hand she felt bad about having her stay in an unknown environment.
It was crucial to keep her safe, Claire told herself. And there was no safer place than the armory, at least for now. Reinforcements to the building itself were underway as well, luckily two of their earth mages were architects, both having served in the imperial army at some point in their lives. A sudden somewhat quiet whistling sound made Claire perk up, magic flaring up around her.
Damian smiled as he looked around the dark town, the sun nearly set as him and their whole group were wrathed in shadow. The guards had been reduced over the day as predicted. While the defenses had been build up again it seemed to be mostly focused on future demon attacks and not a team of rogues. Climbing the walls and killing off the two guards nearby had been trivial.
The boss determined the highest people in the city to be around seventy. Their strategic knowledge was certainly impressive, surviving such a massive demon attack but then again the beasts were stupid and uncoordinated. With the last night's battle they would be easy pickings.
Damian looked around and saw the only person able to spot them to be a guard at the top of a somewhat central watchtower. He would quickly take care of her before they would kill the sleeping people and tired guards. Most would be dead before they knew something was amiss at all.
He aimed his bow and activated three of his skills, the string extending just a little more, the arrow glinting in the moonlight, it's head sharpened by the magic of wind. It would kill or seriously injure and he was aiming for the guard's throat, right below the helmet. Damian never missed.
The arrow was loosed as he turned to the others with a smirk, motioning for them to continue onwards but the man next to him just lifted his arm and pointed towards the guard tower, a confused expression on his face. Damian turned to see the guard looking towards them, his arrow nowhere to be found.
“He deflected it with some kind of shield...” a mage in their group said. “Guess we fucked up the stealthy route...” another one said as Damian watched the guard jump down from the watchtower, landing on the streets around fifty meters away. No alarm was sounded, the guard simply approaching them with casual and slow steps.
“Wow that guy's an idiot...” he said as he got another arrow from his quiver. “Let him approach for a bit more and then take him out. Conceal yourself and surround him.” Damian said, a little vary at the unconcerned guard. The black armor reinforced a little of that feeling but the chance of an actual Hand member to be in this backwater village was close to zero. Likely some small town hero fancying themselves more than they are.
The group spread around him, weapons and magic at the ready when the guard stopped around ten meters in front of them. He gulped as his Identify spell was unable to determine his level but still the possible reward was worth the risk, looking over to the boss the man nodded and he hadn't led them astray so far. Twenty six people, all above level one hundred, some as high as one fifty against a single person.
“There is nothing here for the likes of you but death.” the guard said, the voice distinctively female. Damian noted the lack of concern she showed and again nervously looked towards the boss but it didn't seem like they would change the approach. As soon as battle was inevitable, they would attack without relent.
“Give up the town and we'll let you all leave, with some food and warm clothing even.” the boss said as he stepped a couple meters towards the woman, arms wide open in a gesture of peace. He had a calm and reassuring voice, a born leader. The evening wind blew through his short brown hair as they all held their breaths for the woman's response.
“You don't seem to be lying.” the woman said, scratching her helmet with an armored hand. “But if that's all you have, you're not bringing a lot to this negotiation.” she waited for a while before she continued.
“Now if you wish to trade information or goods, we might find an arrangement. Though if you continue with the hostilities, then my answer stands. There is only death here for you.”
Damian was full on panicking. He was good with people and her body language and voice made him rather sure she wasn't joking. The problem here was that he also knew their boss and if he knew anything about him, then that a statement like hers was a show of weakness to him. The confirmation he had sought. The next moments passed as if in slow motion, Damian opening his mouth to interrupt right when the boss gave them the signal to attack, clapping his hands together as he smiled.
The woman quickly moved her hands, throwing stones around her as she whirled in her long battle skirt. The rogues of their group stepped in, some appearing out of the shadows in the streets, others teleporting right next to the enemy, their weapons drawn and their eyes looking for death.
A shield materialized suddenly, all but one of the rogues caught within before fire erupted inside of it. “Noo!” Damian go out, his hand outstretched towards the dome. Now or never he thought and jumped through the window next to him, moving further along the wall as the street exploded in noise. Spells and arrows were shot towards the barrier, the rest of their group unsheathing their weapons. Luckily nobody went after Damian, focused on the enemy or thinking him to find an advantageous position. Which was exactly what he was doing. A position away from the others.
Looking out the window, he saw the group spreading out, their heavy steps leaving deep tracks in the dirt and mud, a light rain started to fall, dripping off their leather and metal armor while the last light of the sun left.