An island within Silentium Sound
"Are you sure we're clear of the Keltoi out here, Sir Feldhahn?"
muttered Phylip, allotting attention to the darkening woods that surrounded them. Marc Feldhahn, the older Knight leading the three others, chuckled audibly.
"If those barbarians were within a dozen leagues of here, we'd have heard them by now,"
the stout Knight answered, an air of amusement dancing on his tongue.
"Your concern should align with the presence of the Umbra, Sir Greywater. Your inexperience is beginning to show, already,"
Marc's longtime partner, Amya, added on, doing little to hide her ridicule as she remained in the rear of the formation. Phylip shifted his weight from atop his destrier uncomfortably, a glistening chant of smooth platemail and the clink of chains breaking the rhythm of the wind around them.
"Perhaps, Dame d'Avre,"
Phylip remarked, his voice projecting forward. It echoed off the hollow, dark-red trees surrounding them. "I'm just a tad unnerved by the presence of these woods. The darkness is settled here, yes. But.. Something feels... different,"
he said, unable to pinpoint what, specifically, chilled his soul. "It's eerie how the Permafog that hovers over the Sound does not affect this island."
"The Permafog covers all rough waters, Sir Greywater,"
Marc called over his shoulder casually. "It's no surprise its length doesn't reach these shores."
Phylip shook his head.
"I suppose so,"
he said, his brows creased slightly. "We're also the first one's here."
"Well, we've been met with twilight,"
Amya quipped. "The breeze has picked up a bit. Perhaps it's the song of the wind that unmans you?"
Marc clearly found amusement in vexing the amateur Knights, but she could practically see Phylip's mouth harden into a line.
"In the two-hundred years since the Order has been established, no Knight has come across anything beyond the Permafog,"
he replied, keeping his position atop his mount firm. "Forgive me for remaining cautious."
"Sounds like someone fresh out of Squirehood,"
Amya scoffed in response, not refraining from ridiculing the lack of experience her new teammates possessed. "You'll quickly learn the real world is nothing like the scrolls you've read. Try doing this for a couple of decades -- you'll have seen it all, Greenwater."
Phylip narrowed his vibrant, honey eyes in reaction. Truly, him and his partner, Vulmar Hendry, were
on their first assignment tasked by a Lord since leaving the Headquarters, but they were far from 'green'. It was tradition for a Squire to assist their Knight before being promoted, themselves, at twenty-one years of age, though it seemed the older Knights may have forgotten. Perhaps the times had passed with the years, Phylip thought to himself. It was evident to everyone he was in no mood to be made light of, and so he fed into the banter no longer.
"You've been awfully quiet,"
Phylip said, turning to the side to look at his partner. "Have we any indication of where the den is, at the least?"
He asked Vulmar, who rode his horse in silence. It was clear he had been trying to get a piece of technology on his forearm to respond for quite some time.
"We're close, though the Finder abandoned us a league or two ago,"
he responded, waving his forearm towards the other Knights to show the unresponsive armech that sat atop it. "Piece of shite... Every armech we get is refurbished..."
"Every armech you'll ever get has been refurbished,"
Amya responded with annoyance on her tone. Vulmar turned his shoulder to look at the copper-skinned woman with his own glowing eyes of blue-fire and shrugged before turning back around, only accompanied by the loose sounds of chains rattling and the steps of their horses.
"I suppose that's a truth,"
he said spritely before finally closing a clasp on the armor on his forearm to be done with tinkering. "We've done okay without it, besides. Can you not feel it?"
Referring to the Animus, Vulmar inhaled sharply through a hawkish nose to invite in the air around him.
Phylip closed his bright eyes and felt the presence of the island surge within him. Like a sunrise explosion, it filled him with vivid details of the surrounding area. It was hollow, like the trees, and devoid of any natural life, but still it had light to it. Despite the darkness of the region, he could feel the life of the island. And then, in the midst of this meditation, he heard it again. The same sound that had called out to him since before dusk:
Find me, my child...
It was faint and obscure... but.. was that...?
"Yes, Sir Hendry. I can, indeed, feel it,"
Marc answered, making Phylip snap out of it. It appeared no one else heard it, so he said nothing to avoid further ridicule. "The air is heavy."
Marc allowed himself to slow his destrier, which in turn slowed the other three Knights in the formation behind him. He glanced upward at the sky to see the first stars waking from their slumber. The dim light they gave peaked through the skeletal canopy hanging overhead. His shining amethyst eyes closed shut, and without further movement from him, the wind changed its melody. Instead of cackling behind the dry, brittle branches of the dead standing oak trees around them, it seemed to emanate from his own body -- which indeed it did. Pressing outward, gentle bursts of air wove themselves through the trees to create a new hollow song. After a moment or two, the breeze quickly retracted, slamming back into the body of the stout knight, the sounds of rattling chains echoing quietly.
"To the northwest. Seems we'll find something there,"
the salt-haired Knight paused for a moment, looking at the horses they rode on top of. "Let us continue our trek on foot."
And just like that, the other Knights obeyed, each bound by honor to do so. They all slid off the backs of their mounts and found low branches to secure their reigns around, though Vulmar and Phylip remained a step behind the other two. As if on queue, Amya took the lead of the group. With the flick of her hand, she made a flame appear in her palm, resting on the leather that covered it but doing nothing to harm the skin beneath. The light revealed their armor with radiance. The snow-burned metal reflected its luminescent gold trimming beautifully, while also absorbing the rich scarlet cloak adjourned by a phoenix sigil hungover their pauldrons.
As they traveled through the creeping shadows of the Solus Woods, the light only grew in intensity the darker the sky became. Splashing against an aged face covered by slick strands of black, the glow from the fire showed the experience of Amya's years as a Knight, and by her confidence, it was evident that the nearly two decades of scouting she had under her belt came into effect at that moment. The same presence hovered over Marc, who pressed forward with more vigor and purpose than either of the younger Knights. An outcome one would expect from two Suprema Knights with nearly half a century of battlefield experience between them.
The older duo had an air of calmness between them. Phylip, however, was very nervous. Honey eyes, glowing bright from the presence of the Animus coursing within him, shifted nervously around the darkened woods around him, looking for any signs of oncoming danger. Despite being slender as a knife, he felt like the largest target in the group. Vulmar took note of his anxiousness and mirrored it. There was
something different about this island; something beyond the typical terrors that haunted the woods of the mainland. This.. This was something new. For the first time in all his life, Phylip Greywater, the prodigy of his noble family and an expert at understanding the call of the force that surrounded himself and all things, found the Animus to be cloudy to him.
The young partners exchanged a glance between one another and confirmed without the need of words what they each were thinking. A look that did all but scream, "run". Yet somehow, they kept their march. For reasons unclear to the novice Knights, either guided by conviction or blinded by experience, Amya and Marc seemed to not share the same fright. However the reason mattered little to the pair; it was enough for them to swallow their trepidation and continue to press onward onto their objective. Each careful step brought with them the simple sound of marching feet and loose chains shaking, matching their every step. Then, suddenly, Amya's fire dispersed, and the twisted shadows of the woods devoured them all. An eerie silence hovered over them, as they each immediately halted their pace and tuned their ears. Then they heard it..
From the darkness, the ambiance of the decayed forest was accompanied by the haunting sounds of incorporeal chains. The Knights realized none of them wore chanimail nor loose metal, yet the sound of linked cuffs had been following them. They knew, then, they were not alone. The darkness had brought something with it.
"Shite.. Ready yourselves!"
shouted Marc. "The opportunity may be stolen from you before long!"
His expression changed to that of urgency as he ushered out the command. In the same motion, he "unsheathed" his weapon. Reaching a hand up over his pauldron, he grabbed the handle of what appeared to be a sword, but revealed nothing else when pulled forward when brought before himself. Then, from within its own contents, a blade emerged bit-by-bit, revealing the full form of his gladius. It glistened in the dim moonlight and hummed with the presence of the Animus surging through it; an extension of his own spirit.
"It seems we've stumbled upon the den,"
Amya spoke with a chilling coolness in her voice, much different than her usual heated tone. She readied her broadaxe to her front, and despite themselves, Vulmar and Phylip quickly followed suit, sliding into a stance that'd guided them through countless other interactions with the Umbra -- the shadowy reflections of the Animus. As the Knights shuffled and the sounds of constructing metal filled their area, a sinister howl pierced the darkness. It was horrendously loud and jarring, reminiscent of a thousand glass pegs being dragged against a sheet before all shattering at once. It sounded as though death itself called out to them. Phylip felt his bowels turn to water.
Suddenly, piercing through the night, six pairs of eyes, all lit ablaze by hell itself, appeared, followed shortly by the baring of countless sharpened fangs. The shadows of the forest almost seemed to converge on these eyes, swirling hideously into a shape almost resembling that of a bear or perhaps a large, grotesque black dog. Phylip tried to look directly at it, but like most Umbra creatures, its figure couldn't be focused on. Instead, it danced just outside his ability to focus on it. The creature stayed stationary as it came into view, but it was Phylip's own eyes that refused to understand what they were looking at. From what he could see, the beasts stood about eye level, with heinous paws larger than his head. Wicked ears slicked back behind the heads of these beasts, which, like the rest of their bodies, were as black as midnight.
whispered Marc, the word visible in the cold night air. His grip on his weapon tightened. The black dogs began pacing in a circle, snarling and snapping at the Knights who were forced to remain clustered. They soon found themselves backed into one another as they watched the beasts plan how to devour them. Just then, a small axe doused in flames shattered the darkness. It twirled magnificently through the air, shedding light on the foul beasts before connecting into the throat of one. It snarled heinously and whipped its head back viciously. It was Amya's throwing axe.
She shouted, the fire still hot on her axe. Marc grunted as he lifted a hand towards the axe she threw. With a gust of wind, he pressed air towards the weapon and helped feed the fire to furious heights, engulfing the full head of the beast in flames. Their coordination was flawless, and the beast began to howl in agony. It slammed its head on the ground and against dead trees in a frenzied attempt to save itself. Right after, Amya ran forward, nearly faster than the eye could follow, and jumped from the ground, a burst of starlight appearing beneath her iron boots. With a powerful yell, she slammed her broadaxe down with mighty strength, successfully connecting with a separate fiend and cleaving it nearly entirely in twain. After Amya took the charge, Marc turned his attention opposite the direction she left, lowering an arm to propel him forward with a gust of wind. With a spin, he connected his knee with the body of another monster, before following with a swift strike of his sword into the throat of the hound. A fountain of noxious ink sprayed from the wound, splashing against the pure armor donned by the Knight. Meanwhile, Vulmar managed to parry a strike savaged by an unoccupied barghest, preventing a fatal wound from marking him and opening it up for a quick counter with his longsword.
In that instant, another barghest lunged towards the rear of Marc, who'd been preoccupied. It opened its large jaw and lunged its sharp teeth towards the aged Knight, when suddenly the blunt edge of a warhammer met its snout. The sudden shock of the strike would have been enough to cause the beast to stumble, but Phylip did one step further and engulfed his mallet in fierce flames. The snout of the barghest was burned as well as smashed in. Due to the strength of the blow, it was launched into the closest tree which collapsed its hollow trunk inward. The first hound fell to the ground, defeated by the cunning actions of Amya and Marc. Once the creatures had been defeated, they began to contort and break in an abominable method, the sounds of cracks and the snapping of bones heard over the flurry of the fight before returning to the darkness of the night.
The beast that Phylip had struck rose back to its feet, despite the injury to its face. It planted its massive paws and lunged its head backwards. It then let a howl so fierce the trees themselves shuddered in intimidation. Soon, the sounds of rattling chains could once again be heard echoing in the woods around them. It grew louder and louder as more chains joined the harmony. Marc and Amya exchanged a nervous look. Through the darkness pierced another set of eyes of fire, then another, and another. Before long, there were a couple dozen sets of eyes. Marc got to seventeen before he stopped counting.
"How could there be this many?"
Marc asked, a grave expression taking over his weathered face.
"Now's not the time, Marc! We must fly!"
Amya spat out. Nearly on cue, the dozens of other barghest creatures began to materialize, and in an instant, they lunged towards the Knights. "Fly, damn us!"
They broke off, knowing the severity of an injury by even one of these foul creatures. As they ran, the barghests were quickly in pursuit. Were it not for their exceptional speed, the Knights could not possibly have a chance to escape their hunt. Their steps were frantic, but still, Amya and Phylip managed to blast volleys of flames behind them in an attempt to slow the beasts, each blast empowered by the support of Marc's wind. The beasts managed to weave themselves between the defenses, and it was merely a matter of time before the Knights realized there was little point. Instead, they focused their efforts solely in running, reverting to creating distance. The moment they stopped attacking, however, was the moment the beasts saw their opportunity.
Materializing next to Phylip, a barghest lunged towards the young Knight, lashing forward with a mouth full of teeth straight for his throat. Reflexively, Phylip lifted a hand to defend himself, as there wasn't time to think of anything else. With raw might, the barghest burrowed its bite into the flesh of the Knight, piercing straight through the armor that was meant to protect him. The spray of crimson shined under the dim moonlight. Phylip shouted fiercely in agony, as he could feel its teeth shatter and rip through bone. His face turned pale. He knew the meaning of this wound.
During his despair the beast unleashed its grip and fell to the ground as Vulmar's blade pierced its skull. Instinctively, Phylip lifted his wounded arm and looked at the warped metal that once made his armor and the mangled flesh that once made his arm. The blood from the bite glistening even on his russet skin. Originating from the wound, Phylip felt hellfire burn through his veins as his arm turned black. Pain from the attack was nothing compared to the aftermath he was experiencing. The other Knights rallied to his aid, pushing back the oncoming barghests to their best ability. Grunting loudly, Marc threw a hand forward, straining a great deal as he did so. The Animus rallied to his beck and call, and with one powerful sweeping motion, a strong gust of wind knocked the beasts sideways quite a fair distance. It wouldn't be all they needed to escape, but it was enough to buy time. Then, Marc turned to Phylip.
"Sorry, lad. A barghest wound never heals,"
said the older Knight gravely. "There's but one option."
Phylip tried to plea, but it was far too late.
Vulmar began to protest as well, but before he could manage a word, Amya already had a tight grip of Phylip's arm and Marc had his gladius firmly held with both hands. With one, swift motion, Marc sliced through the arm of the wounded Knight, and Amya placed her palm against the stump and produced flames to burn the bloodied end. The air smelled of burnt flesh and sounded of Phylip screaming. Weakly, Phylip looked at his left arm -- or rather where it used to be -- and let out bated breaths.
"We have to keep moving,"
said Amya, giving a nudging look to Vulmar as she slung the stump of Phylip around her neck to help him move. Vulmar remained frozen, stunned by the brutality of what he just witnessed.
"Gods be damned, Hendry, I said fucking move!"
Amya demanded. It was enough to snap Vulmar out of his daze and grab the other arm of Phylip. Once again, they sped off, this time with a bit of distance from the barghests but they were very quickly losing it. Phylip was struggling to maintain his consciousness, stumbling his feet more often than not.
The group continued to run in a frenzy, jumping down ledges and briskly up hills. Soon, Phylip found he was well enough to run on his own, which enabled them to quicken their pace just a bit. The forest was kinder to the beasts, however, for the Knights knew little of their path. Then, finally, luck befell them. A raging river a quarter of a mile thick appeared on their horizon. Running as fast as they could, the Knights followed Marc's lead and kept running full sprint to the clearing and the bank of the river.
"Hendry! Get ready!"
Marc shouted while not stopping his sprint. Vulmar sheathed his weapon and crossed his arms. Then, with great might, he forced a sound from his gut as he was met with physical resistance uncrossing them. As he made progress doing so, however, the river before them began to split apart and open a path for them. It took a great deal of effort to use the Animus to move water, especially under these circumstances. However, Vulmar managed to do so with precision.
When the Knights were far enough into the river, Vulmar allowed the opening to close behind them. Several of the barghests halted their pursuit, but those close to the edge jumped in after them, avoiding the water. Though Marc was prepared. Planting a foot into the wet earth, he pressed a fist in the direction of the fiends, pushing them into the water with a burst of wind and once more hearing the muted sounds of distortion from within the river. They continued their pace, closing the water behind them as they moved. Eventually, they cleared the other side of the river, and they collapsed, felled by exhaustion. Heavy breaths escaped their lungs as they sprawled out on the rocky bank. Marc looked across the water to see the beasts pacing furiously back and forth, desperate to find a way to them. He knew from previous encounters with the Umbra that barghests couldn't cross water. After he confirmed the threat was done, and his breath found, Marc turned his attention to Phylip.
"Greywater. Can you carry on?"
he asked the disfigured youth, offering a hand to help him rise. Phylip reached his right hand out and took it, standing to his feet.
"Aye, Sir Feldhahn,"
Phylip replied with a wince. "I've still my sword-arm."
Remembering he'd left his hammer, Phylip reached to the waist of his armor, which produced another hilt for him. This one assembled into a shortsword; a weapon he'd have no problem wielding in his current condition. After confirming his companions were secure, he turned his attention back across the river, taking a step up to Amya who was already doing the same.
"We're going to need to report this to Lord Wake,"
Amya said, glowing grey eyes still set on the creatures. "The Umbra's presence here is unlike anything we've seen, before."
Marc tightened his jaw and narrowed his eyes.
"Let's return to base. We'll cut south and take the long way back,"
he said. "Hendry, can you call in an escort?"
"I already did, Sir,"
Vulmar responded, waving a hand through a shaky hologram from his forearm. "The signal out here is horrendous, however. We need to move back to shore in order to get a clearer signal."
"Then we shall take our leave."
A few hours passed, and still they hadn't reached their destination. Amya groaned in aggravation.
"We must've come through here half a dozen times, already!"
fumed Amya, the aggravation in her voice apparent. Marc sighed, concern growing in his voice.
"Hendry, you're the one with the armech; what does the Compass tell us?"
Marc asked. Tapping on the same machine as earlier, which appeared to have been taken apart and reassembled half a dozen times before that evening, Vulmar made a faded needle appear. It hovered above his forearm, and seemed to be immaterial, but still pointed true north.
"It says you're right, Sir Feldhahn,"
confirmed Vulmar, much to Amya's dismay. She already knew the smug look Marc would have before she even looked at him.
"That things a piece of junk -- for all we know we could be completely lost!"
Amya shouted back. Marc shook his head.
"It's the best we have to go off of right now, Dame d'Avre,"
he said firmly.
Amya tutted. "You get us lost on nearly every mission, you know this?"
"You just never have patience to see the end of the paths!"
Marc growled, and soon the partners were in one another's faces. Vulmar shook his head and kept tinkering with his armech to try and get it to respond entirely.
The two went back and forth between one another with Vulmar attempting to get better results from his armech. Meanwhile something glowing deep in the forest caught the eye of Phylip. He blinked a few times, unsure of whether or not he saw it, but then it appeared once more. Something was in the forest, and it soothed him. It called to him. In reality, Phylip couldn't really hear the call of the Animus at all, but the light still pulled him forward. Without a word, he started to shuffle his feet towards it, the sounds of his teammates fading into the background. Light faded from around him and he only focused on the glowing light deep within the shadows. Soon, a chime could be heard matching the cadence of the light, which simply entranced Phylip even further. After a few more steps, the dark scenery vividly changed.
He found himself in a grove, surrounded by beautiful flora and enhanced by a kaleidoscope of colors. The area sang of the Animus, which was accompanied by small birds and other woodland animals scurrying and flitting quickly around the room. The space was massive, and, from the clearing in the canopy overhead, moonlight rained graciously into the clearing.
And that was when he saw her... A woman, unlike any he'd laid eyes on before. In the center of the grove stood a woman of pure beauty waist deep in still-standing water. She was elegant, nearly celestial, invoking emotion out of the Knight merely with her presence. Truthfully, she was radiant, like the first hello from the morning sun and her hair appeared as light as a dandelion in the breeze. She didn't move, however, but simply whispered. It was the same whisper Phylip heard earlier in the night.
You have found me, my child. Oh, how I have longed to meet you once more
His mouth dropped as he heard her voice and stared at her divine face. She spoke in a way that seemed beyond his own body, but nonetheless it was loving. He stepped into the water, causing ripples in his wake. It came up to his waist, though it seemed as though he hadn't met any resistance. She reached slender arms made of golden sunlight towards him, as he soon felt the heat she gave off. It was pleasant. He kept walking towards her...
Yes... You're finally here. You're finally mine again.
She cupped his face and held it gently, and for the first time in his life, he felt completely at peace. No doubt, or fear, or worry. No outside call from the Animus. Just... calm. His body was limp as she pulled him closer, and closer to her blurry face...
Marc shouted, appearing in the clearing. Phylip did not react, but the woman holding him shrieked piercingly and turned her attention towards the three intruders. Her mesmeric face morphed into that of something sinister and slithery, as her nearly angelic skin turned scaley and her eyes grew dark.
"Unhand him, you murky bitch!"
Amya shouted, readying her broadaxe once more. Vulmar, too, got readied for the monster to attack.
You can move as freely as a heron...
The creature spoke, calmly, before twisting its voice into a heinous and sinister cadence.
I want that gone.
Suddenly, she rose from the depths of the water high into the clearing, Phylip still powerless to move. She was hoisted up by twelve, endlessly long tendrils coming from below her waist. Snaking up out of the water, vicious heads of wolves emerged from the ends of those tendrils, though they moved in a serpentine fashion. Fur faded into black, oily scales and despite their long, wicked snouts, their forked tongues whipped out between barred teeth. She moved to holding her captive Knight with one hand while she waved her free one towards the other Knights. The wolf-serpents lunged towards the trio.
They did their best, but it was a massacre. Marc managed to stab one while Amya did her best to inflict burns, but despite the flash of fire and sudden breezes that happened in the now wet grove, the Knights were disposed of with haste. They were each wrapped in a coil of one serpent while another one swallowed each of them. They kicked and clawed and squirmed to escape, but never reached salvation. Slithering skyward, the heads held the knights up with their powerful jowls, and slowly devoured each of them, agony the only thing heard before an awful crunch made by muscles forcing their bodies to adhere to a particular shape.
After she finished her meal, the monster returned to her previous state -- the beautiful woman returned. The wolf-serpents retreated to under the surface of the water while she moved her attention and delicate hands back to Phylip's face, which had grown wet. The being's face twisted to show almost that of pain. Her hands raised, and with it, so did the Knight's body, independent of his control. She wiped the tears away and compassionately rubbed her thumb across his dark skin, then lowered her face to his.
Oh, my child.. there's no need to cry. You have everything you could ever want...
She spoke directly to him, but still he couldn't understand her. He was unable to move. He was frozen, not because of any sort of spell or magic, but simply out of paralyzing fear.
I envy how freely you live...
I WANT YOURS... I WANT ALL OF WHAT YOU POSSESS...
Phylip looked up for the first time into emerald
eyes that almost seemed human, but were just out of focus. His heart sank. It was all the evidence he needed to know his end sat in her hands. He started to weep fully, and the golden angel continued to rub his face gently. Soon, Phylip's honey eyes rolled back as dark venis appeared beneath his skin. It spread through all of him while he screamed in anguish. The angel let him go, yet he remained in place above the water, while she slowly sank below it, a wicked smile on her face. Phylip's torment continued for what felt like eons, until he finally landed, softly, on the surface of the water.
He turned towards the entrance of the grove and left with a sinister grin, his vibrant, green
eyes staring forward.