Chapter Seven: Archdruid

Three Weeks Ago
Along the edge of the Veil

“So we head South then?” Liriel asked, most of her attention fixed on attaching the fletching to an arrow. Their supplies in arms and armor from the armory inside Blackwand had been substantial, but a sufficient supply of ammunition for Alassiel’s bow had not be included, and it was important they had everything they needed if they were to face Lahk… especially if everything Alissandra had to say was true.

And she badly wanted to believe it was true… even if it was bad news… because that would mean that the beautiful creature before them was truly an ally. She knew Alassiel didn’t trust the woman, not really, but the druid initiate didn’t have the history with her that her mentor seemed to. Whatever she had been, she was mortal now, and they shared a common foe.

And while the woman’s anger and thirst for revenge unnerved her, she couldn’t deny her attraction to the beautiful brunette.

Shaking her head, she banished the thoughts and turned back to the arrows. Her restored magic made straightening the wood shafts mindlessly easy, and shaping a stone head only marginally less so, but the fletchings still requires an expert hand. Like most young elves that had grown up during the War of Ascension, she had learned how to make arrows and other supplies for the army, especially arrows which requires no strength to make, nor talent… only practice. It was a good distraction from her thoughts, and maybe it would keep anyone from seeing that her cheeks had turned red.

“If that’s where Lahk’s army has gone,” Alassiel answered, running a cloth over Menelrûth’s keen edge, “then that’s where we must follow.” Her skin seemed to have taken on the texture of the granite she was sitting on, and Liriel knew that the Archdruid had prepared her protective spells as a matter of reflex… knew it because she had done the same. Her eyes glowed golden, intense as she prepared her blade for war.

“Into the dwarven kingdoms already,” Liam said, shaking his head. “Only a fool would be so bold to go so quickly.” Alone among the group, the human man wore armor. The pair of druids were protected by their magic, and the former demoness had none to wear. His spear rested easily against the tree upon which he leaned, within easy reach. He looked relaxed, but Liriel had seen him fight before… and she doubted he was anything but prepared to launch into violent attack or defense at a moment’s notice.

“Do not underestimate him,” Alissandra warned. She wore nothing but her clothing, unprotected by either spell or steel. It spoke of either unpreparedness, supreme confidence, or supreme arrogance — Liriel couldn’t be sure which. “He has grown greatly since last you walked inside the Veil, and his army contains a horde of demons the likes of which Silas has not seen since Sanguinar’s fall.” She was sharpening her own sword, a simple steel blade that could have come from any soldiers in the realm.

Alassiel looked up, then nodded in acknowledgment. “It doesn’t matter. No matter how strong he’s grown, he needs to be stopped, and now. The Veil cannot last much longer, and that…” she shuddered, “…thing on the outside must not be permitted inside.” She resumed the cleaning of the bastard sword, and the glow in her eyes pulsed. “No matter what it costs me.”

The inner walls of Teheras still stood, but both attackers and defenders knew it was only a matter of time. Demonic magics crashed against the wards of the city, and they were collapsing faster than the scant few wizards the dwarves had could rebuilt them. Without Zegadu to lead their defenses, the the last defenses of the city would fall within hours… and then the true slaughter would begin. Half of the dwarven women were already of a mind to take their own lives before they allowed themselves to be taken, all to well aware of the fate that awaited them in the hands of the mad god and his demonic hordes.

All hope was nearly gone… and it was into this whirling maelstrom of chaos that it began to rain.

All eyes looked up as the cavern ceiling. Never once, not in the underground capitals thousands of years, had it felt a drop of rain but that was what was happening now — a genuine storm was brewing over their heads, clouds forming from the humidity of so many being in the cavern, and as one they let loose on the city below, drenching dwarf, human, and demon alike. In was into this strange, imposed stillness that Alassiel, the Goddess of life and nature, arrived in the war.

Alassiel entered the battle like a storm, winds whipping about the fierce elven goddess like a leashed hurricane as she fought, wading into the flank of one part of the demonic assault. Her scarlet hair was blown around her face like a veil, the stiff breeze turning the locks into whips that lashed about her like a thousand striking snakes.

It was just like before, on the ridge, in Sanguinar’s temple. The fiery goddess cut down monsters and men by the score as the trio of allies followed in her wake, carving a way through the siege to reach the defenders of Teheras, to defend what was left of the city against Lahk’s assault. She used her control of the tempest to toss the defenders, bludgeoning them around like leaves in the wind, making them easy victims for the slaughter.

They were demons… mostly demons. Demons, and humans who might as well have been demons… and still she hated the death, having to kill them. She hated it each time Menelrûth cleaved though armor, hacking off a limb or a head before moving onto the next foe. A splash of ashe from an eviscerated incubus splashed across her face like blood would have, and she shuddered.

It was almost pleasing to know that it hadn’t grown easier to kill, that maybe the person she had been wasn’t truly gone entirely. That maybe, somewhere, Lissa remained inside her.

Still, she did what she had to. Alassiel, Liriel, Liam, and Alissandra pressed on.

Two Weeks Ago, Edge of the Southern Deserts

Alassiel poured the water over her body, sinking down into the cool river. The water was cold enough to sap the life from a mortal, and both Liam and Liriel had long since dismissed themselves from bathing, but the temperature was a comfortable one to the Archdruid. Doubtless it was just one more side effect of her new found connection to nature, far closer than even her deepest communion through eyrn eregdos had been. It felt to the elf like she was the water, and it would not pass its chill along to her unless she desired it.

She took her time, cleaning the dirt of travel from her naked body beneath the calming current. Tomorrow they would be entering the scrublands that would quickly give way to the great deserts, and little luxuries like this one would become a thing of the past. It was best to enjoy while she could.

At last, however, it became less about cleaning and more about stalling. Alassiel gave a regretful sigh as she rose out of the water and walked back to shore, leaving the cold river swirling in her wake as she moved through the current effortlessly… then she paused. Alissandra stood on the shore, right between her and her clothing. The elven goddess narrowed her golden eyes slightly, then continued to the shore.

The brown haired woman watched her approach, naked save for the water dripping from her lithe form. She made a half-mocking noise of appreciation. “Look at you…” she said, a sly tone to her voice. “How far you’ve come. When we first met, you were wearing that death mask, and now look where you are…” Her eyes scanned up and down Alassiel’s body. “All of the scars are gone, too. I remember them… I believe you made a point of showing me them when we met…”

The elf was not amused. “What do you want, Alissandra?”

The human woman sighed briefly, then abruptly the playfulness in her manner vanished. Alassiel took pains to remind herself again that this woman had been putting on acts, mimicking behaviors, since a thousand years before her birth. “We need to have a talk… about you not trusting me.”

Alassiel quirked her eyebrow. “So naturally, your idea to win my trust was to hold my clothing hostage?” She surged out of the water completely. Just a small effort of will was all it took to summon up the energy necessary to make the water flow off of her body like it was covered with oil, leaving her dry in the warm air.

Without a word or any indication that she had spoken at all, Alissandra picked the clothing off the ground and tossed it to the red haired woman. Equally wordlessly, the goddess began to dress, but her eyes never left the former demoness. “I’m really not sure what there is not to trust about me, so I’m not sure how to set your mind at ease.”

The fire maned druid broke into a short, harsh laugh. “You mean besides the that you’ve probably killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people who trusted you in the past? Besides the fact that I personally witnessed you leading a group of bandits and slavers, and that you all but admitted having sold others into slavery… slavery much like what I myself suffered? Besides the fact that you are a demon, and shouldn’t be inside the Veil in the first place?”

“I’m not actually a demon anymore,” Alissandra corrected.

Alassiel snorted. “Oh, well that changes everything, then.”

“I don’t understand,” she said, her face twisted into an expression of confusion. “I never did anything that harmed you, or anyone you know.”

“And that,” Alassie snapped, “is why I don’t trust you. Because you don’t see why that doesn’t matter to me.”

Alissandra seemed to lose her patience. “Well, let me tell you what I think does matter. Lahk has grown stronger than you can imagine, and if he isn’t killed he’s going to tear your pretty, perfect, mortal little world to tiny pieces. You want to stop him. He took who I was away from me, stole it from me, and I can never get it back. I want him to pay for it. I am going to help you get what you want, in order to get what I want. Is that clear enough for you?”

Her words echoed in the druid’s head. Her identity was stolen from her, and she could never get it back. She swallowed into the silence. That sounded painfully familiar. “Fine,” she said, and her voice was only a little bit hoarse. “That buys you a chance to come and prove your more than a snake… but if you betray us, if you hurt a hair on the head of the people I care about…” The now fully dressed druid picked up the bastard sword from where it rested on the ground, admiring Menelrûth’s shine. “You will not live long enough to regret it. I promise you that. Are we clear?”

The demoness, or former demoness, nodded. “Oh yes. We’re clear.”

Alassiel no longer had a clue where her companions were. They had been separated in the chaos of battle, and she couldn’t pick their lives out from the noise of every other soldiers around her, dwarf, human, or demon, even with the senses the earth had given her. She knew the failing wasn’t with the earth itself, but rather with her — nature was telling her exactly where her friends were, but she couldn’t figure out how to hear the answer in the noise of battle. Her own inexperience had separated them, but she had no time to worry about that further right now… she needed to trust her apprentice, her lover, to take care of themselves.

Right now, there were a of Lahk’s soldiers closing around her. Somewhere in the background, one of the Incubi was working some kind of spell that was holding her pet hurricane at bay for the moment, giving them this opening to try and kill the druid… and they intended to take advantage of it. She shifted her grip on the blade, holding it close to her body in both hands as she summoned strength from the earth, borrowed speed from the wind.

When the assault came, it came all at once. Alassiel had a split second to wish she’d not needed to be able to keep a free hand to work her magic, that she would have carried a shield, before the first attackers were on top of her as she had no more time to think. Despite having seen her fight before, witnessing her carving a bloody path through the invading army, they still underestimated her. No one, human or incubus, could seem to believe that her small frame could move such a large weapons so quickly. They could not understand that she was far stronger than any of them, far faster, far more resilient… and they paid for it.

The first demon disintegrated into a pile of ash that washed over her as she cut it in half, Menelrûth not even slowing as it passed through the monster. She didn’t pause for her attackers to realize their folly, to realize that they had counted on a weakness that didn’t exist… she immediately charged through the cloud of choking ashes, cutting into the human who was right behind him. Nausea washed over her as she felt him die, felt the life force leave his body through her connection to the world, but she had no time to dwell on it now, to mourn the death of yet another who was trying to destroy her and all she cared about.

The storm itself was restrained by the fel magics, but on the ground beneath it Alassiel was the storm herself. She moved with the speed of the swirling wind, the might of thunder as one would-be murderer fell before her blade after another… and still more charged her, one after the other. She seemed invincible… but she was not. She was bleeding. A blade had kissed across her cheek, severing one bang of hair and drawing a line of crimson across her face before she healed it a moment later. The wound was gone… but they understood the significance. For a moment, her stoneskin enchantment had been overwhelmed. If she bled, she could die. They could kill her.

Then suddenly her sword met another, and the clear tone of metal rang out like a bell. She shoved herself backward, stunned by the force of the impact, by the power with which she had been repelled. A woman stood before her, carrying a single longsword, no shield, no armor save for leathers.

At first, Alassiel thought it was a succubus. It took her long seconds to recognize the woman in front of her. “E-Elide?”

One week ago
Oasis in the southern deserts

“You’re trembling.”

The moon was high in the sky, coating the world in silver light. The sands of the desert didn’t hold heat well, but that wasn’t the reason for Alassiel tremors. She knelt in the thin grass of the small oasis they had found, and the cool air brushed across her as harmlessly as the cold water had before. No, she wasn’t cold… but no one was supposed to be awake to see her shaking, either.

“Just cold,” she whispered to the night. The druid adjusted her cloak around her shoulders to cover her more completely. Even here, she felt painfully exposed, even with the cloth wrapped around her. In the small, shallow pool of water before her, Menelrûth rested, submerged and bathing in the moonlight. She could feel the power of the blade, but knew it was little but a conduit for the earth to grant her strength. It needed to be given time to gather that strength… and with the group heading underground tomorrow on the path to Teheras, she could delay no longer.

Liam walked up behind her, helping wrap the cloak around her. “No, you aren’t,” he said softly. He sat down beside her, watching the moon’s reflection on the still water in silence. It meant that he could pretend she wasn’t crying, and Alassiel was grateful for that.

“I’m scared, Liam,” she said at last. “I don’t want to face him again.”

“I know you don’t.”

She moved the quarter of an inc necessary to press her side against the prince, feeling his warmth through the thin desert cloak. “I don’t have a choice though, do I?”

Alassiel felt his head shake against her. “Not really.”

“I won’t let him take me alive, Liam. Not again… not matter what.” She gave a violent shudder. “Not again.”

Slowly, she felt Liam’s arm wrap around her, pulling her against him. “It won’t come to that. You don’t have to face him alone this time.”

Alassiel didn’t argue, but somehow, she doubted it would be that easy. “He’s my brother…”

They sat in silence for long moments before Liam answered. “Does that change anything about what he’s done? About what you need to do?”

“No. Yes.” She answered, one after the other. “It changes nothing… but it makes everything different. He didn’t need to turn out like this. He was stolen, practically from right beside me… from right before my eyes. He was turned into the monster he is… my brother probably never got to make a real decision in his life, and now he’s dead. There is only an animal left… and I’m terrified of him, but I can’t hate him anymore.

She turned to look at the man she loved. “I just pity him, Liam… and I’m not sure I can kill him.”

There was nothing else either of them could say.

The proud steward didn’t look like herself. The elf had always been cold, but not she seem positively feral. There was a look of… eagerness across her blood splattered face as she pointed her silver blade at Alassiel from just a few feet away. “You,” she said simply, coldly, without emotion in her voice, “are supposed to be dead.”

“Elide… what are you doing here?”

The black haired elf gave a sharp grin, baring her teeth. “Ponder that while you wait for the next life.”

“I think not,” Liam said, stepping out of the smoke and filth to flank the dark haired elf. “I never had a chance to tell you this… but I never liked you.”

‘Elide’ laughed, the sound cold and mocking. “Well, if the gates to hell haven’t just been thrown wide open today. I’m crushed by your lack of good regards… but they won’t trouble me over long.”

“Lord Lahk will want that one alive, Uthielle,” a smooth voice called from over the elf’s shoulder. An incubus stepped up behind her, and Alassiel could see magic radiating from this one. This was the one who had held back her magic, she was sure… the elf tightened her hand on Menelrûth’s hilt.

“I know that,” Elide snarled. “I’ll take care of it Caleb. Kill the human.”

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