“Behind me!” Korina hissed, settling her shield. “Behind me!”
“We can do this, right?” Tam said as they gathered up behind her. “Can’t be that tough, ay? Look at us, we just killed a bunch of orcs.”
Maza hurriedly spoke to Voren, who then, stammering, tried to relay the message:
“She says the ritual went wrong. Mixed blood, unprepared. The demon is weak, confused. Like the morning after a bad… Uh, I don’t know how to translate that. The point is, right now we have a chance, but the longer it spends in our world the more it’s going to get…” He flapped his hands in frustration as he tried to come up with the word. “… Unconfused!”
Korina steadied herself.
“Right. Here’s the plan. I’ll get it’s attention–”
Her words dried up as the demon suddenly swung its head in their direction. It took one thudding step towards them and slashed with its flail.
Korina held up her shield to take the blow and was hurled off her feet up against the trunk of a nearby tree. She collapsed at its base with a groan.
Everyone else gaped at her in shock for a moment, then scattered. Tam dropped to the ground and slipped into the shelter of a fallen log. Voren and Elice ran for the tree where Korina had fallen. Maza lifted Kobu in her arms and ran for the shelter of the tree line on the other side of the clearing.
The demon stumbled on its enormous legs and roared into the sky, then pushed itself up again and turned its eyes back to the clearing, looking for something to kill.
Elice fell to her knees next to her sister and touched her on the forehead and shoulder.
“She’s alive,” she breathed in relief.
Voren looked back into the clearing. He saw the demon focus its eyes on the three of them.
“Help her,” he said. “I’m going to buy you some time.”
He ran back out into the clearing and waved his staff in the air, hollering at the demon.
“Demon! Hear me! You have trespassed upon this land and wounded a noble knight of the realm! Prepare yourself to be cast back into the flame, for you face Voren Darkflame, scholar of the arcane mysteries, wielder of the Sacred Flamestaff of Stormwind, and I shall destroy you!”
He thrust his staff impressively in the air and burst of red flame surged from its tip. A rush of wind ruffled Voren’s dark hair and made his cloak billow behind him.
The demon regarded him with a cocked head for a moment, then raised its sword and swung straight down at his head. With a little yelp, Voren dodged for the tree line. The demon pounded after him and swung again. Voren dove and rolled behind a tree. The demon’s sword smashed into the tree’s trunk and tore right through it, bringing the whole crown of the tree crashing down. As the demon raised its sword again, Voren curled into a ball and whimpered.
Suddenly Tam jumped up from his hiding place and hurled a rock that struck the demon right on the side of its face. The creature swung its massive torso around to face Tam.
“Hoy!” Tam yelled! “Me too! I am Sir Tammin the Fabulous, and I shall have at thee, monster, to smite thee, and… and other nasty stuff!” He lobbed another rock, then took off at a run in the other direction. The demon lumbered about to chase him.
Korina gasped in a lungful of cold air and sat up as Elice’s healing rushed through her. She shook her head clear and looked out into the open.
“What a couple of idiots,” Elice said as Tam went hurtling past.
“Make that three,” said Korina. She pushed herself up, yelled as loud as she could, and ran straight for one of the demon’s front legs. The demon snarled and whipped its flail at her, but she dodged out of the way.
“You’re ugly,” Korina shouted, “and I don’t like you, and you hurt the people I do like!” She slashed again at the leg, tearing off some oily black scales, then the flail came down at her again and she had to throw herself behind a boulder to avoid it.
The demon dropped its flail and reached out for the boulder. It caught up the stone in one hand, leaving Korina to scramble for cover behind a tree. As the demon was raising the stone to hurl it down at Korina, Maza loosed an arrow right into its flank. The arrow bounced harmlessly off the demon’s scales, but it made the thing turn its attention away from Korina for a moment.
Tam darted out from the woods and plunged his knife right into the flesh of the demon’s leg where Korina had knocked some of the scales loose. The demon bellowed in pain and lifted the leg up high, Tam’s knife still lodged in its flesh. Tam was lifted into the air a little ways, but then let go of his knife, dropped to the ground and ran back for the tree line. The demon’s leg crashed down again and it hurled the boulder after Tam. The soaring rock caught Tam on the back of his left leg. He flipped in the air with a scream and landed face down on the ground. His leg was battered to pieces. He whimpered and grasped at the ground with his fingers, but did not move.
The demon stumbled as it turned to swipe at Tam with its sword and its blow missed. As it was steadying itself to try again, Korina charged back out from the woods. She drove another slash into the wounded leg. She shouted wordless challenges at the demon, dodging its wild sword swipes, and hacked at the oozing wound on the leg whenever she got an opening. Her breath was getting shorter and shorter, and it was getting harder to dodge the sword. All the while, she kept stealing glances over at Tam, but he was still motionless.
On the far side of the clearing, Maza was pulling Voren up to his feet.
“I know this demon,” she said. “This kind. They are weak on the back of the head, but it takes a heavy blow, like a sword or an axe. My arrows won’t do any good.”
Voren nodded, taking in the information.
“We get Korina up there have to,” he stammered, trying to dig the orcish words up from his memory. “Tell her. Distract the demon. How?”
“First, we have to make sure she lives.”
She pointed across the clearing at where Korina was desperately dodging the demon’s attacks.
Voren thrust his staff at the demon’s long tail and shouted a word of power. A jet of flame struck out from the end of his staff and singed the small scales off the end of the tail.
The demon swung its head back towards them, then slashed at them with its tail. Even the thin tip struck hard and they were flung halfway across the clearing. Maza landed in a crouch, but Voren struck his shoulder against a rock. He wailed in pain as blood coursed down his sleeve.
Korina took advantage of the distraction to slam her entire weight behind her shield right into the protruding handle of Tam’s knife. The whole weapon disappeared into the demon’s flesh. The creature growled and staggered back on its other three legs, flapping its ragged wings uselessly.
Maza sprang up, grabbed Voren by his hale arm and dragged him towards the edge of the woods where Elice was cowering behind a tree. On the way, she grabbed hold of Tam and dragged him along as well. She dropped the two wounded boys right in front of Elice.
“Domak!” Maza shouted. Elice shook her head, uncomprehending. “Domak!” Maza repeated, pointing at the two boys. She looked hopefully at Voren, but he was nearly white from the pain and only whimpering. She snarled in frustration.
“I can’t help them,” Elice said. “I don’t know how to heal wounds like these.”
Maza grabbed Elice by the wrists and pressed her two hands to the boys’ chests.
“Domak,” she said again, softly. She leaned in close and locked eyes with Elice.
Elice could feel how horribly wounded both Tam and Voren were. She could sense every gash in their skin, every fractured bone. She knew exactly how long each one of the would live if she did nothing, and it wasn’t long. She looked into Maza’s eyes, and needed no words, no language, to understand what Maza was trying to tell her. It wasn’t a command in those eyes, nor a wish, nor a fear, but belief. Maza believed that she could heal them.
Seeing that confidence made her want to believe it, too, and suddenly she knew she could. No, she couldn’t make Tam’s leg whole or Voren’s arm perfect, but she could keep them alive, she could spare them pain, and she could send them back into the fight. She closed her eyes and summoned the Light into her heart. She gathered the power into herself, more than she had ever tried to wield before, then she pressed down on the two boys’ chests and let it flow into them.
Tam gasped and opened his eyes wide. Voren let out a little squeak and flopped like a fish. The healing power surged through their flesh, burning and soothing at once. Elice felt the blood stop gushing, the muscles knit together, the bones seal up. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be. They would both need plenty of rest and treatment by a proper priest before they would be well again, but at least for now they would live.
At last Elice understood the lessons Brother Padwell had been trying to teach her for so long. The world is the shadow of our intentions cast by the Light. She had thought she understood before, but now she saw why he had worked so hard to teach her that lesson. I have been holding myself back for so long. I was so afraid of failing that I didn’t even try.
She stood up and looked out into the clearing. Korina was down on one knee, sheltering under her shield as the demon hammered at her with its sword. Elice saw the demon reach down, rip the shield off Korina’s arm and toss it away. Korina was thrown, bloody and dazed against a log. She lay there, struggling to move as the demon lifted its blade high into the night air.
Elice felt the Light surge into her. She reached out towards Korina, concentrating. She could begin to feel her sister’s wounds and bruises, even at this distance. The feelings were faint and they trickled in and out of her, but they were enough. She was determined that they would be enough.
Korina watched the demon’s sword coming down at her. Its jagged edge sparked with flame. She tried to move, but her body wouldn’t respond. She didn’t even feel the pain any more, just a numbness through her limbs. There was nothing to do but wait for the sword to fall. The blade came down.
And it stopped just over her head. A sound like the clangor of a great bell rang out through the clearing. A shimmering shell of light surrounded Korina, holding back the sword. The demon stared down at her for a moment, just as bewildered as she was. It grabbed the sword in both its hands and smashed it down at her again, but the shell of light held firm and the tip of the sword broke off in sparks.
“Demon!” a voice sounded in the night, clear and bold. Korina looked at the edge of the woods. A woman stood there, pale and glorious. A ring of light surrounded her and her feet barely touched the ground. Korina had to blink and squint before she recognized Elice. As the demon turned to look at her, Elice called out: “You will not touch my sister!”
The demon made to stomp towards Elice, but Korina felt a warmth spread through her body. The pain came back, fierce and biting, but with it she found the strength to move her limbs again. She threw herself to her feet, grasped her sword in both hands and swung at the demon’s wounded leg with all her strength. The blade sliced through flesh and shattered bone and the demon’s body crashed down to the ground. It flailed with its other three legs, but could not lift its bulk to walk. Instead it began hacking at Korina with a crazed abandon.
“Back of its head!” Voren called out to her, using his staff to help propel himself towards the fight. “Hit it in the back of its head! It’s weak there!”
Korina dodged another wild swing which sparked against the magical bubble around her. The shell was already dimming and she was sure Elice could not keep it up much longer. She looked up at the demon’s head, still towering above her. The creature could not walk, but it was still fighting. She jumped back, trying to get out of its range, but it began seizing up stones and fallen logs to hurl at her in its fury.
“How do I get there?” she yelled back.
Voren turned around and looked at Tam, who had propped himself against a tree and was breathing heavily.
“We’ve gotta distract it,” Voren said, “give her a chance.”
Tam nodded and tried to think, then looked up with a grin.
“Ice,” he said. Voren shook his head.
“Can’t, I need water. It’s too dry.”
Tam dragged himself to another tree where Elice had dropped her pack. He rummaged in it and pulled out a few waterskins.
“Water,” he said. “Just like that time. You know, the fire festival.”
Voren suppressed a grin of his own and shouted a few words at Maza. She looked doubtful, but she nocked an arrow to her bow. Voren steadied himself and raised his staff to point at the demon’s head. Tam got one arm around a tree trunk for balance, then picked up one of the water skins in his other hand.
“Heyo!” Tam called out and he threw the waterskin right at the demon’s head.
Maza tracked the skin with her bow. Just as it was arcing towards the demon’s face, she let loose her shaft. The arrow sliced through the waterskin sending a spray of water all over the demon’s face. In that moment, Voren called out a word of magic and the end of his staff glowed bright blue. The water froze into a block of ice stuck right to the demon’s face.
The demon dropped the stone it had been about to throw and clawed at its face. The ice began to break up almost at once, but Tam launched another waterskin, Maza pierced it, and Voren cast his spell again. The ice froze around the demon’s hand and stuck it to the ice already on its head. It dropped its sword and clawed at the ice with its other hand, which got caught in another burst of ice.
Korina took her chance. The ice couldn’t last long against the demon’s strength. It was already starting to shatter. But for a moment, the demon was sitting still and wasn’t paying attention to her. She took a running leap onto the haunch of the wounded leg. The demon’s body heaved and struggled underneath her, but she plunged her sword into its flesh to make a grip and pulled herself up onto its back. Steadying her foot against her lodged sword, she could stand. The demon flapped its wings and shook itself, but she kept her footing.
The thick, scaly neck was right in front of her. She grabbed the hatchet from her belt and hacked at it. Each blow made the demon buck and heave, but she kept hacking. Scales flew off, cutting her face with their sharp edges, but she kept at it, exposing the soft flesh. She put her weight into a blow right at the center of the bare flesh and was rewarded with a spurt of foul blood. She kept hacking, even as her arms ached with every movement until the demon gave one last bellow and then collapsed, sprawling its bulk across the ground.
They were all wounded, sore, and exhausted, and there was no water left for their parched throats. Elice had sunk into oblivion at the end from the strain of keeping Korina safe, but when she came to she set about bandaging up the injuries she no longer had the strength to heal. She even managed to make Kobu’s paw a little better. Maza placed some of her clay tokens into the cauldron and sat beside it for a long time, chanting in a low voice until, without any warning, the metal of the cauldron cracked, dissolved into dust, and was blown away on a gust of wind. Korina found her mother up in the tree, asleep and breathing easily, and brought her down on her shoulders.
All of them wanted nothing so much as sleep, but with hardly a word it was agreed by all that they would not sleep here. Before leaving the clearing behind, though, Korina took her hatchet and hacked off one of the demon’s great tusks. Tam borrowed Voren’s staff for a crutch and considered digging into the fallen fiend’s leg for his knife, but thought better of it when Maza offered him White-hair’s knife instead. Korina yanked her sword out of the demon’s flesh and recovered her shield while Maza picked the bodies for any of her arrows that might be usable.
Esma was listless and weak and she let out a little scream on first seeing Maza, but Elice calmed her down, explaining what had happened in disjointed and halting phrases. In the end, Esma simply sat, silently weeping while Elice held her. Korina came and put her arms around both of them.
“Well, well, welly,” said Tam as they looked over the clearing for a final time, “that’ll be a story to tell in time.” There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. Supporting each other as best they could, they began the trudge back down towards the river. At the riverbank, Korina made a small fire and they all had a little to eat before falling down to sleep.
Korina looked up at the sky as she lay next to the warm embers. There wasn’t a single part of her that didn’t hurt and for a moment she was terrified that if she closed her eyes she would see nothing but demons and evil magic. But when she did close her eyes, she fell at once into soundest sleep of her life and dreamt of nothing but moonlight.
When Korina awoke, the sun was already high in the sky, beaming down spring warmth on her face. Tam and Elice were sitting up, softly talking. Esma and Voren were still sleeping. Maza was nowhere to be seen.
They ate the last crumbs of Elice’s provisions that morning and took the raft back across the river to the Stonefield farm. There they borrowed the wheelbarrow to carry Tam back towards Stormwind. They met no one until they were back on the Westfall road where a guard patrol stopped to examine this unlikely party of travelers. The rest of them let Tam do most of the talking, since it came easily to him. He recounted their adventure, keeping Maza’s identity vague but stressing the important role they had all played in protecting Stormwind from a demonic attack on its unguarded flank. The guard captain looked dubious, even when Korina displayed her trophy demon tusk, but he told off two of his men to ride down and scout the Stonefield farm and the verges of the Duskwood while he and the rest of his troop escorted the party to the healers in Northshire. The slow-moving band had just reached the fringes of Goldshire when the two scouts returned with a breathless report of a clearing in the woods filled with dead orcs and a monstrous corpse. The guard captain listened to the whole account, then gave the group of them a stiff salute and galloped off towards the city.
The militia came marching back into Elwynn about a week later. The rumor was that the orcs had never pressed their assault further than the Redridge foothills and had inexplicably turned around one day and disappeared back into their mountain strongholds. Farmers got back to their fields in time for a late planting and the Goldshire village square was soon busy with life again.
The healers in Northshire kept Korina for two days and they would have kept her longer but she snuck away one night. The farm was in a sorry state and about a dozen sheep had been lost, but she got the rest rounded up and taken care of. Elice turned up the next day, saying that the healers had let her go since she promised to look after her sister. Their mother stayed with the healers for a few more weeks, until she had recovered her strength and the nightmares were starting to fade, but during those weeks Elice walked over to Northshire every day to visit her. Most days, she met Brother Padwell on the road. Tam and Voren needed much more serious care. After the first few days, they saw little of the boys.
When Esma came home again she still needed some tending, but the healers had taught Elice what she needed to know. Some nights the girls would wake to the sound of their mother’s screams and go down to comfort her, but those nights became fewer and rarer. It was months before Esma could bear to step outside alone at night, but as the nights were getting chillier and the harvest festival decorations started to go up, she began to do little chores in the sheep shed on her own in the evening.
Korina had persuaded Argus to hire her on for the season. She chopped wood, carried water, pulled the bellows, and learned a little smithcraft along the way. Elice no longer went to Brother Padwell’s lessons along with the other village children, but they continued their daily walks filled with talk of the mysteries of the Light and he loaded her with books which filled most of the rest of her days. Among the three of them, they did not speak of those days, but Esma cleaned the old shield and hung it over the fireplace.
It was a gray fall afternoon and Esma had just set three bowls of bean soup on the table for dinner when there was a knock at the door. Korina got up to see who it was. Brother Padwell stood outside, accompanied by two people she remembered: Llane and Anetta, from Northshire.
“Brother Padwell,” said Esma, “do come in. Join us for dinner, if you wish.”
“No, we could not impose,” said Padwell. “We’ve come to speak to Korina and Elice, if we might.”
Esma ushered the the three inside and Padwell made brief introductions. Korina and Elice stood up and offered their chairs to the guests.
“We heard about what happened in the spring,” said Llane. “We’ve been making inquiries. Discreetly. We know there are things you chose not to tell, but we haven’t come to pry into that.”
“You see,” Anetta picked up, “we had to be cautious. In times of war, strange things happen and people tell strange stories.”
“We didn’t lie to you,” Korina said. She could feel her anger rising, but she kept her voice steady.
“No,” said Padwell, “we never thought you had. Now we know for sure.”
“I don’t understand,” said Elice.
Lllane leaned on the table and spoke in a low voice.
“Our pickets captured a Blackrock scout a month ago and we finally got him to talk. He spilled on the plot to turn Stormwind’s flank and sow confusion behind the lines in their assault last spring.” Elice looked at her mother, but Esma kept her composure. Llane seemed not to notice. “Now we know what they were plotting, and we know that you stopped them. You denied them the element of surprise. You saved some lives and spared us a nasty campaign in the mountains to retake whatever ground they might have gained. You did well.”
“We were just looking for our mother,” Korina said. Esma smiled and patted her on the shoulder.
“The point is,” said Padwell, “you did well in a hard spot. Stormwind needs people like that. We’ve discussed it and we’re here to offer you a chance to do something with your talents.”
Korina and Elice looked at each other over the table.
“But,” Elice said, “we’re not old enough to take the king’s silver. Korina could in a year. I have at least three years to go.”
Llane held up two shiny silver pieces stamped with the Stormwind lion.
“Exceptions can be made,” said Anetta, “in cases of exceptional merit.”
Padwell looked at Elice.
“I don’t think you have anything more to learn from me,” he said. He turned to Korina. “And I think you’ve learned all you needed to on your own.”
Korina leaned back against the wall of the cottage.
“Thank you,” she said. “Truly, thank you. You should take Elice, but I can’t leave my mother. She needs me.”
“Nonsense!” said Elice. “I should stay with Mama, I’m younger. You should go and be a knight.”
“Don’t worry about your mother,” Padwell assured them. “We will make sure that she is well taken care of. You have my promise on that.”
Korina and Elice both went to their mother’s side. She was smiling despite the tears running down her face.
“My daughters,” she whispered, pulling both of them close to her. “Go. Your father would be proud of you.”
Llane plopped the coins on the table and stood up.
“There’s your first,” he said. “Don’t expect much more than that any time soon. The pay is lousy, the food’s worse, and you’ll probably get killed. But you’ll be keeping your mother and good folk like her safe. Report to Northshire first thing tomorrow morning to start your training.”
Korina clutched Elice’s hands in hers.
“We should celebrate tonight. I guess I won’t see much of you for a while. We’re both going to be busy with training.”
Anetta smiled at them.
“Oh, you’ll be spending a lot of time together. When we discover a team that works as well as yours, we don’t split them up. In fact, why don’t you come outside and say hello to your teammates?”
Korina ran for the door and Elice came hurrying behind her, after making a quick curtsey. Llane, Anetta and Padwell followed, but kept their distance.
Tam whooped and cheered as Korina burst out of the cottage door. He was hanging upside-down from a tree branch wearing new clothes of drab black and gray. Voren was leaning against the treetrunk in a fine purple robe. He jumped up and cheered as Korina and Elice appeared.
“Well, ain’t this just the bear’s honey!” Tam called, springing down out of the tree. “Tam’s Irregulars together again!”
“We’re not calling ourselves that,” Korina insisted, running up and giving him a punch on the shoulder.
“I think ‘The Darkflame Brigade’ has a nice ring to it,” Voren offered.
Elice came and joined them.
“I was really thinking of something more like ‘The Champions of the Light,” she said. Tam made a face and laughed.
Korina waved for their attention.
“It doesn’t matter what we call ourselves,” she said. “We’re together.”
“Except…” Voren said, then paused and glanced over his shoulder. “You know. Our friend.”
“I miss her,” Korina agreed, “but she’s out there somewhere. Maybe we’ll find her.”
They joined hands and looked at each other, unable to stop smiling.
“Right,” said Tam after a moment, “I’ve got a shiny new silver piece just eating away at my pouch-leathers, ay? Let’s all go down the Golden Goblet and see if we can’t lose a good night’s sleep. It all starts tomorrow.”
Thank you for reading! We now return you to your regularly scheduled silly webcomic.