Viv spent her evening with a book for the first time in two weeks, or maybe more if you counted time the earth way. Cernit had kindly provided her with a magical candle, a sort of rave glowstick that she could charge and be done for a few hours. The light was more than enough for her needs. It was also easier to use than her stone. Reading with that thing required her to always have it in hand with a clear line of view to the text. And that was annoying.
Arthur made a choice just before it was time to sleep. The tiny dragon decided that it was too bloody cold and climbed on the back of her bed with her sleeping bag in her maw. Viv used to have a dog who did that, so it wasn’t too weird. Kind of nostalgic, in fact. She managed to steal a few scratches on her companion’s smooth, soft scales and then, she was out in seconds.
Two souls manifested from the void. The in-between was a curious place where euclidian notions like distance only had a tenuous grip. Space itself was merely a reference used by entities used to more traditional dimensions. The souls were infinitely far apart, yet in other ways they were quite close. Close enough to communicate.
“How are things on your end?” Maradoc, the God of Secrets, asked.
“Decent enough. I am honor-bound to serve this land’s military for another two years but I already sent some feelers for when I get out. This Viviane Saint-Lys’ resources are amazing. How are things on your end?”
“The throne remains empty. Your wife cannot claim it since you were not defeated or cast out, just as you said.”
“Your sister, you mean?”
“I know what I said.”
There was, for lack of a better term, a pause.
“Just be careful. She will be more destructive when she turns desperate,” Emeric continued.
“Your… replacement. She is still alive.”
“Why wouldn’t she be? I sent her to the concentration of magic that best matched her personality. Priests would know what she is worth with one look.”
“There were no priests, Emeric.”
“What do you mean?”
“You sent her straight to Harrakan. In the imperial palace.”
“Fuuuuuuck I should have guessed it. Dammit! Arg.”
“How did it even happen? Could you not tell that she was black-aligned?”
“There were no signs. She was rich, from a powerful family. No quest for vengeance or anything. I did not know until I searched her memories.”
“You know, she chose to be a medic in the army? That’s a healer of sorts. I thought that she was a kind-hearted soul with a care for her fellow people, until I dug deeper. One day, there was a fuckup and the perimeter where the wounded were kept got breached. A wall that fell down. She threw a… sort of fireball in the hall, then walked through and executed four soldiers by shooting them in the head. Calmly, and one by one. And she enjoyed it. She returned to her patient after that as if it was no big deal. This is when I figured it out. Agh, I should have taken more time to check her memories.”
“I like her already. I don’t see the problem.”
“She is no Halurian warborn, you dunce. Her world is not as warlike as ours, especially not the place she came from. She’s… not kind at heart, although she thinks she should be. It took me a while to understand that.”
“Relax, Emeric. Even if she makes waves, your pursuers will never tie her to you. She is not the only one with a divine spark of luck. Maranor will just think that she’s a lucky inheritor.”
“It’s not waves that bother me, I just... I don’t know why I worry. About her and the world. I think this human shape is messing with my mind.”
“Perhaps for the best. You have been an insufferable asshole for the past two centuries, so much that I considered siding with your wife.”
“…Thanks Maradoc, you’re a good friend.”
“The best. See you next time.”
Viv woke up to someone rummaging through her stuff.
“Arthur, no. No stealing. You wait. I said no.”
“I know you are hungry. Now, kindly fuck off.”
//Good morning, Your Grace.
“And to you too, Solfis. Need a charge?”
Viv stood up and tried to stretch but Arthur kept squawking, so she fed her. Then it was time to help Solfis, who had finished the enchantments for the core and part of another arm during the night. She pushed power into the massive core. It felt like trying to inflate a bouncing castle with her mouth.
When she was done, she plugged the now operational power-core with the hose-like cable she had used to charge the emergency batteries. It was impressive how much progress Solfis had managed to make in such a short time.
A short cleaning session later, she came out in search of food like some sort of cavewoman. It was early morning outside. A soldier jumped to his feet when he saw her and ran into the barracks, from which Cernit promptly exited. The tanned soldier looked a bit green around the gills which was his normal state so that was fine. It was just… still strange. It also made her realize that she would look like a foreigner around here no matter what she did.
The lieutenant escorted her to the mess hall where soldiers were already dining. They sat at a separate table, soon joined by Benetti. Breakfast was a congee soup with pieces of pickled vegetables and salty meat in it. It tasted simple but nice. It also made her feel warm.
“Today. Go out to battle again?”
“Yes, Cernit. Agreed.”
The man smiled. He was more confident now. His eyes turned to the side and she could almost see the cogs turning in the man’s mind. He had a plan.
They ate quickly, then she went back to her room. She spent a few minutes teaching Arthur basic hygiene rules, charged Solfis while practicing forms, stretched, and then it was time.
The second village was further away, to the north when considering the axis between Fort Stone and Fort Sky. As far as she could tell, they were south of Harrak, so going north meant more concentration of black mana and more powerful undead.
She realized Cernit’s logic. Fort Stone, which had been demolished, lay to the east. He had emptied the village directly between the two forts because it was the closest to the necromancer. The next one was the most dangerous and also on the way. After that, they would probably go south-east.
It felt weird to return to a more concentrated part of the deadlands. Jor, before her, felt more tense than usual as the empty plains succeeded each other before them. She kept the poisoning at bay by casting regularly.
Hey, she had just gained something, hadn’t she?
Viv focused and tried to cast two yoinks at once. It failed miserably, but she realized that she could cast one just after the previous one was in the air.
That was cool, but tiring. She decided to return to her previous, lazy casting.
Intimidation: Beginner 7
Aww come on. Magic was not that scary, she thought, while watching tendrils of absolute darkness ripping the energy out of undead abominations and sending them to an ashy demise.
The trip was quick after that.
The next village was built around a bridge over a dry riverbed. The stone was greyer here, but otherwise there was little to differentiate it from the other wind-swept, ash-mired ruin they had previously visited. They used the same technique as before to empty the south side. There was a small moment of panic when four crawlers jumped out after them, but a burst of speed from the horses allowed them to stay ahead for long enough to avoid dismemberment. She had to take a short break afterward.
As before, the powerful black mana coursing through her conduits brought a sweet sort of pain, and she felt them grow clearer. More defined. It was probably a good thing if she could survive the experience.
They made their way back in and killed a crawling gut spiller which was missing a leg. Then, to her surprise, the three dismounted by the village’s entrance. Revenants started to converge on them almost immediately.
Benetti and Cernit took out blades while Jor handled a massive axe.
[Magic sword (enchanted): this officer sword is issued to officers in the Barran military if they do not bring their own. It can pierce through magical and mundane defenses alike.]
[Benetti family rapier (enchanted): this family heirloom can only be wielded by the blood of the Benetti. Precise strikes from this weapon are particularly devastating.]
[Heavy infantry shieldbreaker axe: a standard issue weapon of the Barran military. It is particularly heavy. Designed to break shields and shield-lines.]
The three men stood side by side and dispatched the revenants with grim efficiency. Enemies felled by the enchanted swords stopped moving. Those struck by the axe kept squirming a bit, but they could do little since Jor tended to cleave his targets in two.
Viv was certain that they were using skills. She had difficulties following the speed of their movements and there was a small light coming from the blades sometimes.
The purge lasted for a few minutes, after which the men had a pile of dead at their feet. They were all sweating and breathing heavily though, so fighting at this intensity clearly took a toll. She took the liberty of covering them while they dragged all of the dead in a small mound of rotting bodies. Cernit took a sort of brown ingot from one of his saddlebags. He recited a few words and threw it on the pile.
It ignited and fire slowly spread over the dead, some of whom were already twitching. Black smoke soon filled the air.
“We fight,” Cernit declared, looking pleased with himself. Benetti rolled his eyes.
“We go north to fight the dead,” the smarmy man elaborated. It was his turn to look proud.
Jor said nothing.
They climbed back on their mounts and made their way through the now considerably less crowded streets. They made their way to the south end of the bridge.
It was deserted. There were only a few circling birds — normal-sized this time — and revenants milling in the distance.
“Hold,” she said.
They kept going, though they turned to her.
They didn’t get it.
She lifted her right fist in a ‘wait’ gesture. That made them stop, for some reason.
Ah, they got that one. Possibly a military term or something. They looked around warily.
“No. Ambush. Maybe.”
Again with the lost looks.
“Maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. Hypothetically.”
“Oooh,” Benetti answered before she could go through the whole thesaurus. Honestly though, when they were on the bridge, they would be out in the open with no way to go. It was worth their time making sure that their avenue of retreat remained free.
The knights stepped down and started securing the houses nearby. Viv sighed and approached the bridge, having a look down out of habit. You always checked bridges for IEDs and other stuff if there were any doubt. Otherwise, even if the explosion did not kill you, the fall would.
She looked down and stopped time by instinct.
There were two scythe-like jaws closing in around her head.
[Defiled centipede: very dangerous]
It was Viv’s soldier reflexes who saved her. Instead of pulling back into the closing circle of chitinous death, she dived low, behind cover. The dreadful blades snapped close with a dreadful clack. She bumped the top of her skull against one in her rush to escape, but the cloak’s hood protected her.
The tendril shot out with as much strength as she could manage. It slammed against the creature’s head like a slap, then she invaded its conduits.
And slammed into… something else.
If she had to compare, it would be like taking a sledgehammer to a wall, only for the wall to collapse at the last moment and the sledgehammer to end in the bollocks of the person behind it. There was a presence in the insectile monster. Or had been. Her torrential power had kicked it out.
With the death of the creature came a concert of ear-splitting screeches. Another centipede rushed up from below the bridge.
She missed. It was too small and too fast.
And then Benetti was here. He pierced the creature’s skull with his rapier and jumped back when the centipede tried to disembowel him. She aimed at the base of the body.
This time, the spell flew true. The centipede could move fast, but it moved in a line. The creature fell and she felt flooded with energy again.
On the other side of the bridge, a mass of revenants was charging, led by a large crawler. Viv was ready to offski the fuck away. Cernit had other ideas. The three knights created a battle line in the narrow corridor and Cernit turned towards her, eyes frantic.
“Necromancer!” he screamed, “Necromancer!”
And she finally realized what had happened. Undead were too stupid to lie in ambush in such a coordinated manner, especially revenants.
They were being controlled.
That was the presence she had felt when she had killed the first. The blow must have made the enemy caster lose control.
She was confused, though. Her understanding was that the necromancer was super dangerous and that they would try to hold in the fort? What had changed?
In the two seconds of hesitation that followed, Cernit screamed her name and pointed at the ghoulish, siminan form of the crawler.
It fell dead and black mana flooded her conduits.
They were right in a way. This was a perfect chokehold. And they had cleared most of the houses at their back, which meant that they had several avenues of retreat and horses to do so.
She focused on the next large creature, a sort of undead bear covered in tattered fur that trampled revenants in its haste to reach them.
She lifted a finger and the bear stopped in its tracks.
The bolt was aiming right at its torso.
An alien intelligence shone in the monster’s blue orbs. It grabbed a revenant in its paw and threw it like a puppet in the spell’s trajectory.
“Alright then, let’s see how you juggle,” Viv said with a scowl.
The bear fell back, crushing more undead. Its massive form slowed the flow of revenants considerably, so that the three knights moved onto the bridge and started to dispatch the creatures as they came closer. Some of the revenants even fell into the dry riverbed.
Viv sent spell after spell after the retreating titan. It blocked all of them with his freshly improvised personal shield. She aimed for the flanks, the arms, arced one of the projectiles, and cast three spells in quick succession. That one almost worked, but she stopped herself from pushing too hard. She knew that she had to save her strength.
In the meanwhile, her companions were hacking away. They displayed none of their earlier exhaustion, although the flow of undead was manageable.
The bear reached the other side and ran away. Like an open tap, a flood of revenants limped forth into the space it had freed. Viv observed the developing situation with worry. Some of the revenants that had fallen down were climbing up on the other side of the bridge. Cernit noticed as well, and with one word, the combatants started to run. Jor dropped one of the burning bricks on the pile of dead they had already formed. It appeared that no efforts were to be wasted.
They mounted again, and Viv got another surprise. Cernit rode perpendicular to the riverbed until the slope became more manageable. They made their way down.
They were… crossing to engage the necromancer?
“Why?” she asked, surprised.
“Necromancer... army… very small. Good chance.” Benetti said.
THAT was small?
Had they taken leave of their senses?
She grumbled, but what could she do? Jump down?
The horses climbed on the opposite side with some difficulty, and only because they found a practical way. They were, again, in the desert. The second half of the village stood to their right in a loose semi-circle, with its surroundings devoid of revenants in a thirty meters radius. Only a few houses remained standing compared to its southern counterpart, which meant less cover.
They approached it at a trot and stopped at the edge of the main road. The streets were deserted.
She easily spotted the eyes of revenants shining in the dark. One of them had a blue coloration.
The light faded as the spell flew, but the revenant still died. Then another, then another. Viv methodically killed those she could spot through broken doors, shattered windows, and crumbling walls. She spaced the spells enough to hit that sweet spot where her exhaustion would only progress slowly.
Then it happened. The necromancer released their hold on their horde and revenants emerged from every nook and cranny. Cernit immediately turned them around and rode completely out of town.
She could not follow his strategy.
He and Benetti exchanged a few quick words, then turned right. They rode to the other side of the half village, having the dry river to their right. Viv finally understood what the crafty lieutenant had been looking for.
A group was leaving the village, using the unleashed horde to keep Viv’s group busy. She saw a few wolf-like creatures with reptilian faces, a gut spiller and the massive bear upon which a thin human form clad in black rags rode. Armored revenants trailed behind them, slower than the larger undead. The escaping group was regrouping as they came into view.
Viv glanced up. Two birds were circling above them. The necromancer had kept a visual on them the entire time.
Whelp, it was too late anyway.
As the knights charged in, she realized that they might have a chance. The necromancer’s control was messy. Erratic. She could spot the moment where individual undead stopped trying to eat them and returned to formation, only for their control to fray again. Now, how to exploit that?
She had a fairly good idea.
The three riders skirted the back of the formation, now firmly in the open. She could see the last armored revenants pull back one by one. Each creature turned its head away as it was receiving orders. She waited, aimed, and…
Her spell latched into the last creature, one with a dented shield and furs, as the enemy spellcaster was still inside. She smacked their presence aside with prejudice and moved herself back afterward.
“Haha!” she exclaimed triumphantly as the horde faltered. Her allies used the opportunity to crash through the ranks of the armored revenants, cutting them down as they milled aimlessly. She did not let the opportunity go to waste.
Her spell hit the bear and a struggle began as she attempted to overwhelm its conduits.
The mana there was concentrated, and much more potent than anything else she had felt before. A presence was feeding the creature power opposite her. It was the other caster. They were…
They were weak.
She felt the other person’s resistance, or presence, buckle under her timid assault. They would break very soon…
But the spell snapped and she withdrew. She was too far.
Viv frowned. The bear was still standing.
The three made another pass. This time, they rode opposite the diminished mass of armored revenants. She took aim at the bear once more, and was propelled to the side.
Jor had turned around and pushed her to the side. The spell went wide.
A moment later, claws lacerated her right shoulder. Cernit yelled an order and they pulled out. Jor was maneuvering with one hand and pushing away a furious undead bird with the other.
The necromancer had used his spies as fucking dive bombers.
Viv reacted immediately.
The spell exited her back and speared the creature. It disintegrated. She turned around and saw two more flying down. Towards her.
And behind her, a gurgle gave her an ominous warning.
Gut spiller vomit splashed harmlessly against her hastily erected defenses. She gritted her teeth against the pain in her wound and the rapid drain of her resources.
Jor’s axe struck something behind, and she turned to see Cernit cut down the last flyer. They were out.
She gnashed her teeth. The pain was not too bad, but there was something there as well, the same feverish sensation she associated with mana poisoning, only more virulent.
She closed her eyes and focused on her shoulder. The invasive mana…
It was disappearing. Or rather, it was drained into her conduits and transformed into her own. This would probably lead to her getting poisoned again. She preferred that to fantasy necrosis or mana sepsis or whatever it was called that could turn her into one of the walking dead.
Cernit had them stop at a short distance away from their foe. He turned to her.
She rolled her shoulder, then winced. It would be fine so long as the adrenaline kept flowing.
The necromancer was not idle either. They raised two bandaged arms and the armored revenants fell to the ground, twitching. Then, a strange mania animated the surviving beasts. Their orbits shone blue and their movements turned jerky. They moved faster. They were charging!
Cernit seemed to ponder the situation for one second. The necromancer still had the bear, some of those strange dogs with snake heads it had not used, and the one gut spiller.
The officer snapped an order, and Viv was suddenly lifted from the saddle and placed on the ground as if she were but a small child. The lieutenant addressed her.
The three knights closed rank.
“For Baran. FOR THE KING!”
And they charged.
Like a bunch of fucking meatheads.
Viv spat and cursed, then followed at a run. What were those idiots even thinking? She was not legging it back alone through a horde of revenants! Those fuckwits better not die.
The trio crashed into the pile of monsters with heroic determination. She heard a great commotion but could not quite process who was winning. One of the horses neighed piteously.
The three knights were alive and… whacking. She had trouble following their fast swordwork.
For one second, she thought they might win, but then the bear broke through. One horse was dead before it hit the ground, Benetti rolling lightly from his thrashing mount. Jor was pushed aside but managed to remain astride. Cernit and his horse fell down, though he managed to slash the creature's jaw away before it could fasten around his head.
Benetti decapitated a snake dog as he ran back. Jor fought two others. The necromancer lifted a hand towards Cernit who was still reeling from the bear’s attack. They were getting overwhelmed.
Viv’s black umbrella deployed between the bear and his prey. A massive paw swiped the air through the shield’s obscured membrane, making Viv hiss but missing the knight. She maintained it as another paw attacked it.
Her left foot found the horse’s body and she jumped up, using strength boost and slowing her perception of time.
The shield fell as she was casting her next spell.
The bear failed to detect her presence, but the necromancer looked up and… his eyes widened.
He was… a child. No, a dirty, malnourished teen under a mask of grime, and tatters of isolating fabric.
It was too late anyway.
Her body smashed against his, and her knife found his chest again, and again, and again. She stabbed him until they fell from the creature. She stabbed until the thin body smacked the ground under her, until no strange magic or high endurance could possibly save his life.
Cernit rolled away and stared, aghast, as the witch launched herself at the necromancer and stabbed him with the cold rage of a Halurian warborn. They disappeared behind the rampaging bear and he made himself scarce.
No one could save her now.
He grabbed his gelding by the harness and dragged him back. The poor beast was at the limit of its strength. Jor joined him soon while Benetti sauntered forth, unharmed despite his fall.
They stared at the melee.
And then, as a dark figure crawled out between two snarling scalehounds. She stood up, brushed dust from her armor and jogged in their direction. It was the witch. She had a weird black fabric covering her armor as part of some spell, no doubt. She was still alive. And the undead ignored her.
He knew that the creatures would not stay confused for long. An attack would come. He pressed onward and helped her up, while Jor recovered Benetti. They ran away.
Meanwhile, Viv was processing.
Her shoulder was lancing, though that wasn’t too bad yet. The two horses carried the four humans to the edge of the village, behind a collapsed barn, but no further. Cernit’s horse stumbled and fell. She was saved by the knight as he jumped down and dragged her before she could get trapped beneath the beast. The sudden pull tore a muffled scream out of her.
“Sorry,” the lieutenant said.
She could see blood under the horse’s torn leather harness. She raised a hand to try and help, but Cernit pushed it down.
“No. Benetti, Jor.”
Both knights’ expressions were grim. Benetti was the first she chose to help. He had one long gash across his chest. She peeled off the armor and placed her hand before the wound.
The exterior world faded. She had to trust them to hold the line while she worked at saving lives. There were no choppers to load the wounded on in this grim world, but they had magic and it was just as good. She just had to keep them alive. Stable. Instead of an op table and a surgeon, they would have that bullshit life mana. God, how much she would have given to get that back on earth. Twitch your fucking fingers and the wounds close. Maybe even mend shattered vertebrae. And would that not be fucking grand.
She was not ok.
Viv focused harder. The black mana answered her anger with worrying eagerness. It pulled from the wound like a gel, taking blood and skin with it. Benetti mewled in pain.
When it was done, a globule of black and red hovered above her hand. She let it drop.
Benetti’s breath was hard and fast. He was pale, with tears down his face. Cernit was whispering something. There was a pathetic neigh, then the sound of metal on flesh. The lieutenant barked an order and the sharp knight grabbed a vial from one of his pouches. He downed half of it and spread the rest over his chest.
It was as if the wound was washed away, to be replaced by pinkish skin.
Viv had never seen such bullshit before.
Shaking her head, she turned to ministrate Jor who had taken the initiative to peel off the armor where he was hurt the most. A small gash on his forearm was cured in moments, but the one on his thigh was mangled and raw. It took her a little bit longer.
Viv pulled back, pale and exhausted. Running on fumes, this time. Not a good idea. But she had to keep going.
One last person.
Cernit had his back to her. He was bleeding from the side, where the bear had marked him. Speaking of which.
She heard a sniffing sound at the edge of the crumbling wall they were hiding behind.
Viv stood and stepped forward. Her arms would not raise for some reason. That was fine. The black mana escaped from the captain’s flank as she passed him by. He turned to her with an expression of surprise. She grabbed that little ball and made it grow larger. She fed it with her own depleted power until she was wrenched like a twisted rag and there was nothing left to give. It hovered before her, impatient. A real attack hound, that one.
The bear’s ugly mug passed the corner.
Her spell connected to it. It bore through its conduit with ravenous hunger, seeking the power she had lost, consuming all. It broke through everything with such might that black fumaroles breached through the beast’s withered skin. The bear exploded in a torrent of ash.
You have reached a milestone! You have gained the ability to overcharge your spells. Your ability to concentrate is vastly improved. Your ability to recall past memories in greater details is vastly improved. You may now cast more powerful spells.
Intimidation: Beginner 8
Mana manipulation: Beginner 8
She turned to Cernit, who was gawping at the carcass like a fucking moron. Trying to catch flies in his mouth or something.
“Just make sure you grab the ribcage. He needs it. Got it? Ribcage. Riiiiibcaaaaaage.”
When she was done, she nodded once to herself and slowly toppled forward.
Black Hedge Witch (7)