As the night fell, the companions had finished setting up camp on the corner of the forest pond, right next to the pier and the small boat they had found earlier. Ruzzella hadn't been much help; at least two of her ribs had been broken and a third one cracked when the dragon's tail had hit her. She could walk on her own, but any further feat of endurance was beyond her. Fortunately, Kyle had made himself useful, and they had the ground cleaned of pebbles and rocks and a nice big fire going before it had gotten dark.
As they sat around the crackling flames, Kyle was opening the makeshift bandages around his acid-burnt arm he had fashioned from his other sleeve. The blisters on his skin looked awful.
“Are you certain you don't want to come back to Vael with us?” Seyran asked. “A wound that size should be tended by a healer.”
Kyle shook his head. “It'll be fine,” he said. “The robe I'm wearing is made of lotus weave – it's magically imbued to keep out sickness and decay. I won't even have to change that bandage. Just wanted to make sure nothing got underneath it.”
“Impressive,” Seyran nodded. “Do all monster hunters wear clothing like this?”
“Depends. Most choose heavier armor than I do, and they need padded underclothes. Lotus weave isn't much good for that purpose.”
“Yeah, if that dragon had hit you like it hit me, you'd have had a problem,” Ruzzella said, coughing lightly. “Good thing I'm so bouncy.”
Kyle looked at her and sighed. “It was still a close one for you, Ruzzy,” he said. “Really, you should be a little more careful. You can't just rush everybody and think this is a good battle strategy.”
Ruzzella looked at him and slightly tilted her head to the side. “Aw, you're worried!”
“I am,” Kyle nodded. “Please, promise me you won't do anything that foolish again.”
“Sorry, no promises,” Ruzzella grinned, “though I'll probably switch tactics for the next dragon we fight. At least if Emrald manages to give me my sword back until then.”
“I'm almost done,” Emrald replied, turning the red serrated blade in his hands one more time. “Just want to make sure it's really safe to handle.”
Ruzzella sighed, which made her cough again. “It is safe to handle,” she said, “or something bad would have happened to you by now. You've been staring at it for hours! Give it back!”
“Found out anything about it?” Seyran asked.
“A little.” Emrald put the sword down into his lap. “The blade's not a masterpiece, but pretty good handiwork. Unusual metal amalgamate, quite brittle but very unlikely to lose its edge, even if you bang it against rock or steel. It's going to break or splinter, but it'll very definitely stay sharp. Elven work, I'd say, though I don't know from where. Probably not this continent.”
“Any idea why it's so light?”
The goliath smiled. “Actually, it's not light at all,” he said. “Here, hold out your hands.”
Seyran extended his palms towards Emrald, and he put the sword on his friend's outstretched hands.
“Whoa! That's heavy!”
“See?” Emrald nodded at him. “And how take it by its grip.”
Carefully, Seyran put the large weapon down on his legs and did as his friend had suggested. He was able to raise it without any trouble.
“Now how does that work?”
Emrald shrugged. “I'm not certain, but my best guess is there's some wind magic in the blade that helps you lift as soon as you try wielding it. It has the feel of a longsword or even something lighter. That's what makes me think it may be elven handiwork.”
“In any case, I found it,” Ruzzella complained, “and it's mine. Now give it back to me!”
Seyran sighed and handed the sword over to her. “You and that dragon would have gotten along perfectly,” he said. “You have the same charming way of talking to people.”
Ruzzella snatched the blade away from him and proudly propped it into the ground next to herself. “Not my fault if you don't want anything for yourself from that hoard. Should have thought of that before you got jealous at me for my beautiful elven masterpiece.”
Kyle shook his head. “I agree with Emrald on that matter,” he said, “taking things from a dragon's hoard is almost always a bad idea. Dragons tend to put curses on their loot. I heard of someone who put on a ring from a dragon's hoard, and it turned him into a dragon himself and gave him the insatiable hunger to collect all the gold he could find.”
“Doesn't sound that bad to me,” Ruzzella grinned. “Becoming a dragon sounds pretty cool.”
“Until you realize how many people would love to call themselves 'dragonslayer'.”
“In any case,” Kyle continued, “I got myself a nice piece of our black brat's tail for a trophy, and that's more than enough for me. I wish I had brought more bags of holding, though. My master back home could have certainly done something with that dragon's heart, or at least her skin.”
Emrald raised an eyebrow. “And how would you have skinned it,” he asked, “without any tools sharp enough to actually get through those scales of her?”
“In any case,” Seyran suggested, “we should call it a night. I don't know about you, but I'm tired, and my body's aching, and we still have a few days of travel ahead of us until we're safely back home. Everybody okay with that?”
Emrald nodded. “Agreed.”
“Same here,” Kyle said. “I'll just put that bandage back on and get to sleep then. Who takes first watch?”
“I'll do it,” Ruzzella offered.
“You?” Seyran skeptically looked at her. “You should sleep. Your injuries are the worst of any of us.”
“Maybe. But I'm not really tired yet.”
Kyle shrugged. “If you want first watch, I'm not fighting you for it. Besides, with our fire still burning high, it's quite unlikely that any creatures will dare approach us in the next few hours.”
“And if they do,” Ruzzella grinned, “I get to try out my new sword on them.”
To Ruzzella's slight disappointment (and everyone else's great relief), though, she didn't get to try out her new sword that night, and in the morning, they boarded the boat and crossed the pond. Getting back through the Darkwoods took the rest of the day, mostly because Ruzzella had to stop to rest every once in a while on account of her broken ribs. Emrald offered to carry her things for her, but she staunchly refused, probably because her new sword was also a part of these things.
After making camp in the Darkwoods one more time, the following noon saw them out of the forest and back on the road, a little farther from Vael than they had intended. Kyle knew the area from his journey from the north and pointed them in the right direction.
Around two hours after leaving the Darkwoods, the companions saw something sparkling and blinking in the distance, and as they came closer, they could make out a person in a set of heavy armor that reflected the afternoon sun with a golden glimmer. From the looks of it, the person was coming closer, probably traveling the road into the opposite direction, and after a short while, they were able to get a good look at that traveler.
It was a woman in her late twenties, a wandering warrior from the looks of it. The golden armor she was wearing was a set of scalemail, beautifully crafted to resemble the looks of a dragon's scales – having only encountered a dragon two days earlier, the companions could easily tell. Strapped to her hip was the largest mace any of them had ever seen before, an almost man-sized spiked monstrosity of a cudgel that had been apparently forged from a single piece of metal of the same golden color as her armor, though it couldn't have been real gold, or it would have been too heavy to wield for a giant, let alone a normal person. The woman was not wearing a helmet, and her hair had been braided and then tucked up, giving her a peculiar motherly appearance.
As they approached, the woman stopped as she was about twenty feet from the others and bowed slightly. “A minute of your time,” she said, “if I may.”
Seyran signaled his friends to stop and stood in front of the others. “Are you lost?” he asked the woman.
“Not quite,” she smiled back. “Though it is true that I am searching. What gave me away?”
“The fact that you don't really look as though you belong here,” Kyle said. “We rarely see warriors like you in these lands.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “You look like warriors yourselves,” she said, “and if I may be so blunt, you don't look like you belong here either.” She seemed to take a closer look at Ruzzella. “I'm not certain I've seen even one of your species anywhere else on this continent before, for example.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Ruzzella scoffed at her. “This is my home, every bit as much as it's Seyran's, or Emrald's, or...” She stopped and started to cough again, clutching her chest in pain.
“My, but you are injured!” the woman exclaimed, stepping closer to the companions. “May I have a look?”
Seyran eyed her skeptically. “You're a healer?”
“Of no small degree, if I may be so blunt,” the woman said. “Please, may I be of assistance? I do not like to see people suffering.”
“We cannot pay you,” Kyle interjected, “if that is what you are hoping for. As you may see from her condition, and ours in general, our last fight didn't go quite as well as we expected.”
The woman shook her head. “I shall ask for no payment. I merely wish to help.”
“Alright then,” Ruzzella grumbled. “But no touching!”
“It will not be necessary,” the woman said and walked up to the companions. “It's enough if I'm at arm's reach to you, if that is alright.”
Ruzzella shrugged. “I suppose so. But don't try anything funny!”
“I will try to avoid it,” the woman said in the most neutral voice imaginable.
Then she approached the cat warrior until she was right before her and extended her left hand. Her middle and ring fingers began to glow in a yellow light, and a few seconds later, the same light started shining from Ruzzella's chest. Ruzzella winced slightly, baring her teeth and giving a little growl, but she stood steady, not fighting whatever was happening. A moment afterwards, she breathed in deeply and sharply, and then again a little more slowly, and then she relaxed with a sigh.
Around a minute later, the woman lowed her hand again, and the glowing stopped. “You were lucky,” she said. “Some of your ribs were broken, and one of them was touching your lung. Had that blow been slightly harder, you wouldn't have lived.”
Ruzzella grinned. “Still have a few of my nine lives left”, she said, her voice now much less strained than before.
“Thank you for your help, um...” Seyran scratched his head. “I'm sorry, but we never introduced ourselves.”
“I am Iris,” the woman said. “Well met.”
Seyran bowed. “Well met, Iris. I am Seyran, and these are Emrald, Kyle and Ruzzella.”
“Call me Ruzzy,” Ruzzella chimed in.
“Glad I could have been of assistance,” Iris said. “Now, if I may ask a small favor of you?”
Seyran nodded. “Certainly. You mentioned you were searching. Is it about that?”
“It is,” Iris said and reached for her neck, pulling out a thin silver chain from under her armor, and on that chain a crystal pendant. “Have you ever seen something like this?”
Seyran bowed forward to take a closer look at the pendant. The crystal it was made of was dark in hue, like tinted glass, just not as evenly colored. On second glance, the darkness inside seemed to shift form, maybe like a stormcloud, but that could just as well have been a trick of the light. The entire crystal looked like it was the splinter of a larger piece, with a very smooth top but very rough edges. It didn't look sharp, though, its edges were more like those of a rock, though it was definitely transparent.
“This isn't exactly my area of expertise.” Seyran shook his head. “No, can't say I've seen something like that before. Emrald, what about you?”
The goliath took a closer look. “Could be a krastalite”, he said, “though I've never seen one as clear as that one. They are usually much milkier than this one; you can't see through them. It has magical properties, I suppose?”
Iris nodded. “It's a magical focus, or rather a part of one,” she explained. “From my research, it should be able to hold a spell structure once it's complete. It could be used to store any spell and release it upon command.”
“Strange,” Kyle said. “How does a warrior like you come to know that much of magical artifacts? And be capable of casting magic spells, too.”
“Who says I'm a warrior?” Iris replied.
“Your armor does.”
“Then my armor's a good liar, isn't it?”
Kyle raised an eyebrow. “You mean your armor isn't really...”
“It's only for show,” Iris smiled. “It looks impressive, as does that mace here, but neither is what it looks like. I wish to avoid trouble on my journeys, so I chose to wear something that would discourage troublemakers from testing my mettle.”
“Sure worked for me,” Seyran said. “I was wondering how strong someone had to be to wear that set of armor without breaking a sweat, let alone wield that weapon of yours. It must be-”
“In any case,” Emrald interrupted him, “no, I have not seen anything like that crystal anywhere, and neither have I heard of something like it. Spell-holding artifacts like the one you were describing are usually fashioned in the shape of metal boxes or other containers, but not into something that looks like a mineral. Are you certain that is what your artifact is supposed to accomplish?”
Iris nodded. “Quite so. A pity you don't know anything about it either.”
“There's not much knowledge on magic in the lands this far to the south,” Seyran said. “You're probably better off looking in Teotopica.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” Iris said and let the crystal pendant slip back under her armor again. “Well, nice having made your acquaintance, then. I think I should continue on my journey.”
“Safe travels,” Seyran nodded. “And good luck on your quest.”
“And thanks for the healing,” Ruzzella added.
Iris smiled. “Anytime. Safe travels to you too,” she said, passed the companions and continued her journey down the road.
Seyran gestured to the others. “Come on, let's get going.”
“I'd rather not turn my back on her until she's well out of range,” Kyle said, just loud enough for the other companions to hear.
Kyle's gaze was fixed on Iris slowly walking away. “There's something fishy with that woman,” he explained. “She says she's not a warrior, but she certainly walks like one. And it wouldn't surprise me if that mace of hers was every bit as heavy as it looks.”
“What do you mean, she walks like a warrior?” Seyran took another look at Iris. “She walks perfectly normal.”
“She walks just like you and me, and we're both warriors,” Kyle said. “Flat-footed, unshakable, always ready to fall into a combat stance within the blink of an eyebrow.”
“Bah,” Ruzzella laughed, “you're jumping at shadows!”
“Not so loud!”
Ruzzella shook her head in amusement. “Really, you're expecting her to backstab us? After she just healed me? She'd have an easier time with that if I was still injured.”
Kyle didn't take his eyes off the golden armor in the distance. “Or she's just so good that you don't make any difference to her.”
“Hey, are you saying I'm-”
“I don't think she's going to attack us either,” Emrald gently said, “but at the very least, I can tell you that she's an experienced spellcaster. That magic she used to heal Ruzzella looked like it was from the elemental family of Light, and mastery of Light spells requires mastery of all four classic elements. That makes her statement she isn't a warrior a little more believable, I think.”
Kyle shook his head. “She walks like one. No pure scholar is that prepared for a fight.”
Seyran looked after Iris, her armor still well visible on the road. She seemed to make no attempt to prepare for combat, nothing aside from continuing on her way. She way now definitely out of range for anything except an arrow, and the one with the bow and arrows was on their side, not on hers.
He sighed. “Let's continue, alright?”
“Alright,” Kyle nodded. “My instincts say she's dangerous, but maybe I'm just a little tense from our fight against the dragon.”
“Then the faster we get away from her, the better,” Emrald said. “Let us go.”
The companions turned away from Iris and started walking again, and when Seyran looked over his shoulder a few minutes later, she had become a small golden sparkle far, far in the distance. Kyle had probably been mistaken about her. Apparently, there was a downside to having a warrior's vigilance.
“Now that I think about it,” Ruzzella suddenly said, “there was something weird about Iris.”
“Mh?” Seyran looked at her.
“She said she wore that armor to discourage troublemakers, didn't she?”
Seyran nodded. “Yeah. So what?”
“If you wanted to avoid trouble,” Ruzzella mused, “why would you dress like the contents of a treasure chest?”
When evening fell, the companions came to the point where they had entered the Darkwoods a few days ago – the traces of their fight against the goblins were still visible – and they decided to make camp right there. The sky was relatively clear, and so they simply built another fire with loose branches they gathered in the nearby forest. Like the night before, this one remained calm.
Two hours after they had broken camp the next morning, they came to a crossroads they had passed on their way to the temple. From here, it was just three more days back to Vael, and they were quite certain that all dangers now lay behind them. This land was their home, and they all knew it well enough.
However, as they were just about to continue on their way, Kyle stopped.
“This is where we part ways,” he said.
“Oh?” Seyran turned to him. “I thought you'd accompany us back to Vael.”
Kyle shook his head. “I was supposed to head straight back to my guild once I was done with my quest,” he explained. “My masters will excuse a detour to slay a dragon, but little more.”
Emrald turned to him. “Then thank you for your company,” he said, “and good luck for the rest of your journey. You still have quite a long way ahead of you.”
“I suppose so,” Kyle said, “but I'll get along. From Faradil, I can take a ship up to the White Coast, and then a riverboat down to Maar. From there, it's less than a week to Letroun.”
“It's still two weeks of travel if everything goes right, and three if it doesn't.” Emrald didn't look happy. “A lot can happen in three weeks.”
Kyle smiled. “It'll work out. It always does.”
“Good attitude,” Ruzzella complimented him. “Just the way I usually try to tackle things.”
“Unless you run into a dragon, right?”
“Um – right.”
Seyran walked up to Kyle. “Give my regards to the masters of your guild,” he said. “Tell them there's a young man in the south who's thinking of becoming a monster hunter himself after meeting you.”
Kyle smiled. “They'll be thrilled to hear that. Bring your friends too, if you choose to come. You can never have too many goliaths in the guild.”
“And catfolk,” Ruzzella added.
“And maybe catfolk.”
Seyran put out his hand and shook Kyle's. “I hope we see each other again someday,” he said.
“Gods willing,” Kyle replied. “Farewell. And if you ever have trouble with monsters near your town, don't hesitate to ask for me personally.”
“We will.” Seyran let go of Kyle's hand and stepped back. “Goodbye.”
As Kyle turned and followed the road to the north, Seyran returned to the others. Emrald and Ruzzella were looking at him quite intensely. Moreso than usual.
Seyran raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”
“Monster hunter?” Emrald asked. “Did you mean that? Or were you just being nice?”
Seyran shrugged. “It is a possible career choice, isn't it?”
“I can think of few better ways to shorten your own lifespan,” Emrald said. “I'm quite happy we managed to hunt down even one monster. Two if you count the megaraptor.”
“And I can think of a better choice of career than one where others tell you where to go and what monsters to kill,” Ruzzella chimed in. “Not that I'd mind the actual fighting. But I'd rather go hunting for treasure and just deal with the monsters that get in the way of the treasure.”
Seyran raised an eyebrow. “You seemed to be quite enthusiastic to volunteer when Kyle brought up Emrald.”
“Can't have him thinking that Emrald would be a better choice than me, can I?”
Emrald moaned. “Can we please agree that this is a discussion for another time? I just want to get back home. Or does any of you two want to follow Kyle up north?”
“Of course not,” Seyran said, nodding to him. “You're right, let's be on our way.”
“Yeah,” Ruzzella agreed, “I can't wait to see the faces of the others when we tell them what their so-called 'reptile' really was.”
The rest of the journey was just as easy as the companions had suspected. The weather remained calm, a combination of clear and cloudy but without any rain, and the road was quiet. They didn't meet another traveler, or someone working in their view, or anybody for their entire way back.
It was the afternoon of their third day after saying goodbye to Kyle when they got to the rolling meadows surrounding their home town. Usually, this was where the people of Vael brought their livestock to graze and where they mowed hay, but strangely, everything looked deserted even here. There were no carts, no people, no sign of work, and only a lonely cow was standing on one of the meadows, munching grass with apparently not a care in the world.
“That's strange,” Seyran mused. “Where is everybody?”
“Maybe in Vael?” Ruzzella suggested.
“What would they be doing there?”
Ruzzella shrugged. “I don't know. Prepare the party for our triumphant homecoming, maybe?”
“Then they invited the wrong guests,” Emrald said, pointing to the sky ahead. “Look!”
Seyran and Ruzzella followed Emrald's gesture, and then they could see what he had noticed: A large murder of crows was hovering in the distance, roughly over where Vael was. They were still far enough that their hoarse calls were only faintly audible, but their number was big enough for them to appear like a blackish cloud hanging over the town.
“Something happened!” Seyran suddenly understood, and with a quick movement, he unbuckled his weapon and readied it, and his companions did the same, Emrald his war-fork and Ruzzella her newly acquired sword. The three quickened their pace, not running but falling into a light jog that would not leave them exhausted.
It took them around ten more minutes at this pace to get up the hills surrounding Vael, and as soon as they arrived there, the entire scenery unfolded before them.
Vael was no more.
Where the village had formerly been standing, now only a pile of blackened ruins remained. The old houses had been reduced to rubble and then set on fire, by the looks of it, and dead bodies littered the streets, a feast for the crows whose cawing now echoed across the razed valley. The old fountain, a reminder of the time when this had been a dwarven settlement, had been taken apart, and from of its formerly bubbling water only a dirty puddle remained.
The companions stood still for a moment, the shock and terror of what they were seeing too great for them to handle. No one said a word, until Ruzzella eventually broke the silence.
“I'll kill them,” she whispered with shaking hands. “I'll hunt down and kill whoever did this.”
“Just who did this?” Seyran asked, his voice still hoarse with terror. “Who would do something like this? And why? This just doesn't make sense!”
Ruzzella looked at him. “I don't care why anyone did this. I'm going to skin them and take out their throats, that's what I'm going to do.”
“Then you'd better find yourself an army,” Emrald said, his voice low and choked, “because an army did this. Look what happened to the houses. Look what happened to the fountain. This wasn't the work of some bandits. This was more. Someone wanted to wipe Vael off the face of Moentes. Just look! There isn't even one wall still standing!”
“Do you think there's anybody still alive?” Seyran said. “Everything... everything looks so...”
“Dead,” Emrald finished his sentence. “And no, I don't think we're going to find a living soul here. This didn't happen today, or even yesterday. Whatever happened here happened days ago.”
Seyran swallowed. “We should still go down there and look,” he said. “Maybe there's still something we can do, someone we can still help.”
“And if not,” Ruzzella added, “maybe we can at least find a hint at whoever's responsible for this massacre. Come, let's take a look!”
Without waiting for the others, she was already running down into the ruins of Vael, and Emrald and Seyran followed her, though much more slowly and carefully, looking out for any movement or any signs of life. Ruzzella seemed not to bother much about that, but then again, she had the better ears and would probably be able to hear anyone still moving in the ruins, so she could probably afford to rush ahead.
The crows flew up as she ran through the remains of the village, angrily crowing at her interfering with their feast, and as Seyran and Emrald came past the dead bodies they had left behind, they could see that the deaths of the townspeople had been violent beyond compare. Their bodies lay broken, many skulls smashed, some of them missing body parts that, apparently, had been torn out or bitten off. What weapons they had brought to their defense – axes, scythes, a few spears – lay broken next to them, and when they came upon someone of the town guard, they found him with his armor torn open as though it had been made of paper, not metal, and with his head missing.
“I don't understand this,” Emrald muttered. “This just doesn't make sense!”
“Yeah,” Seyran agreed. “All this slaughter – for what? Vael never gave anyone reason to-”
Emrald shook his head “That's not what I meant,” he said. “This destruction here – only an army can lay waste to a village like that. But if that is so, then where is that army?”
“And that's what doesn't make sense,” Emrald continued. “Armies on the march leaves traces. They cut down trees for firewood or for bridging fords. They have wagons that leave marks on the ground. Their campsites are large enough to be still be recognizable days after they have moved on. And yet, we have not seen one single sign of an army's presence on our way to Vael!”
Seyran thought about that. “Then where did it come from? And where did it go?”
Emrald sighed. “I cannot make heads or tails of it. We should have come upon at least some traces on our way. But there was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing at all!”
“Unless,” Seyran mused, “you count Iris.”
Seyran nodded. “Come to think of it, even if we didn't see any signs of an army, at least she should have seen some, if not the army itself. I mean, we were not even half a day away from that crossroads to the north when we met her, were we?”
“I suppose so...”
“Then why didn't she see the army? Or if she did, why didn't she mention it?”
Emrald looked down. “I can think of only one good explanation.”
“What is she is the army?”
Seyran's eyes widened. “W- what?”
“Kyle said there was something off with her, remember? She said she was no warrior, but he thought that might have been a lie.”
“But-” Seyran shook his head. “All this slaughter? All this destruction, caused by one single person?”
“Do you have a better explanation?”
Seyran thought about that for a moment and just wanted to open his mouth for a reply when suddenly, he saw Ruzzella running towards them, and judging from her speed, she was running away from something.
“Monster!” she screamed as soon as she got close to her friends. “Up there!”
“There!” Ruzzella shouted and pointed towards the ruins of a large building Seyran remembered well – it was the house where he had grown up. Gyorgo's mansion.
And as he looked towards these ruins, his stomach feeling as though it was tightening into a knot, he saw a large black shadow crawling up one of the last remaining walls of the former mansion, climbing up until it was sitting atop the structure. And there, it turned towards the companions and looked down at them with unwavering eyes glowing in a greenish light.
And somehow, it seemed as if the creature had been expecting them.