The Last Descendant Ch. 06byElianna©
What just happened?
Entrari froze in shock and confusion and his men were just as motionless. No one moved, breathed, blinked.
Where did it go? What made it disappear so suddenly? Surely they weren't beating it when it started charging. Surely it was about to devour them, for despite their magic, they had completely lost control.
"What in the Abyss was that?" Kelda said under his breath.
Entrari shook his head. He couldn't explain. He'd never seen a demon do anything like that before.
"Something happened," Gosta said. He sounded as surprised as Kelda. "Something that doesn't have anything to do with us and our magic."
Still, no one moved. They were suspicious; afraid that if they let their guard down that the monster would reappear and attack. They refused to believe that such a powerful demon would just decide to go back to the Abyss, especially not after being so — his gut tightened at the thought — well fed. He had to agree with those suspicions, but as they stood, frozen, listening, cringing with anticipation of bedlam once again, nothing happened.
He heard a small whimper behind him.
"Your highness," one of his men called quietly, his voice still awash with tension. "Something's wrong with the princess."
Mention of the girl seemed to release his frozen body. He turned around and looked for her at once, only to find her lying face down on the ground behind him. Her strange silver-black hair was tangled about her, and her arms were twisted uncomfortably beneath her. He swallowed a curse and fell to his knees beside her, feeling momentarily helpless with concern.
She wasn't moving.
He carefully rolled her over and brushed her tangled tresses from her cheek trying to assess her condition. Her face was tear-streaked and splotched with dirt. There was a trickle blood at the corner of her mouth from where she bit into her bottom lip, probably to keep from screaming. He brushed the soft skin at her neck feeling for the pulse of her life, and watched her closely until he saw her chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. Finally he let the breath he didn't realize he was holding out in a sigh of relief. Other than being unconscious, she seemed all right.
He touched his hand to the side of her face and gathered himself again to whisper a spell. Even if she wasn't badly hurt, he couldn't bear to let her suffer any discomfort after he'd made her stare down a demon.
"You might not want to do that yet, Your Highness," said Gosta in a strangled voice.
Entrari glared at him. He would not let her suffer! He felt a vicious sense of protectiveness and possessiveness as he held her limp body in his arms that almost made him growl angrily at his friend.
Gosta knelt beside him and put his hand on his arm. "I understand, but you must wait. Don't you feel it?" he whispered quietly. "There's some kind of power lingering about her. I think it's Druid power and I've never felt anything so...overwhelming. Reach out with your spirit, Your Highness, I know you'll feel it, too."
Entrari took another deep breath to calm himself and the torrent of emotions he felt whenever it came to the barbarian princess. He knew better than to ignore his knight's premonitions and council. Gosta was connected more intimately to a world he never bothered to try to understand. There were times he rebuked himself for his impatience with the Druid ways. As a lad, he shunned his studies, relying on his magic; at the time it had seen easier, more fitting for his burning impatience. Even to him now, the patient, spiritual and meditative practices of the Druids seemed a waste of time, but that didn't mean he couldn't employ his unpracticed skill when he needed to.
He closed his eyes and forced himself calm down enough to reach out with his spirit. He hated it; reaching out made him feel naked, vulnerable, weak. How Gosta managed to maintain his sanity as his essence slinked out of his body was beyond him.
Entrari didn't have to go far. The darkness from the demon still lingered powerfully, and he felt that cold sweat of a fever once again. But even more powerful than the sickness of spirit from the demon, there was something else; something so powerful that he gasped and sucked his essence back inside fearfully.
"What the hell is that?" he gasped to his friend.
Gosta shook his head. "I don't know." He looked at Entrari meaningfully. "I think it's coming from her."
Entrari stared at the unconscious girl in his arms in surprise. She seemed so delicate, fragile almost. Surely she couldn't have...
He looked into Gosta's intent brown eyes for a moment, and knew that his best friend was thinking the same thing.
"Is the princess okay?" Kelda asked quietly. He had that look of frustration he got whenever Entrari and Gosta had "spiritual" conversations.
"I'm not sure," said Entrari truthfully. "She could have just passed out...or it could be something else."
"She probably fainted from fright. She's a mess," Kelda said. "Look, she even cut into her hands with her fingernails."
"She didn't scream once," said Keska, the youngest of his bodyguards. "She just fell to her knees and it looked like she started praying."
Gosta arched his eyebrows at looked meaningfully him again. Entrari knew he was going to have to disclose the Archpriest's secret. The way Kelda looked at him, then Gosta, and then the girl, his gray eyes speculative, indicated that he guessed he was missing something Druid and important. He might have to tell Kelda, too. That would be an interesting conversation. For some reason he was reluctant to explain things, even to his best friends.
Elenna whimpered, her brows furrowing as though her dreams brought her discomfort. Once again he felt that strange urge to help her, to heal her, to comfort her. He stroked her cheek gently and her face softened again at his touch. Entrari felt his heart swell just a little at the thought that his touch had soothed her. Even after all he did to her the last few days; subconsciously, she still found comfort in his presence.
"Let's let her rest and come out of it on her own," he said finally. If she didn't recover after resting for a while, he'd use magic to heal her.
He lifted her off the ground easily and stood up to look over his men. Most of these soldiers had never encountered such a powerful demon, and it showed. They looked exhausted. They had no clue how lucky they were, for the last time Entrari had encountered such a powerful monster it had killed some of his best sorcerers. This group of magic users was relatively new; a regiment in training. He hadn't planned on needing this kind of magic during this conquest. Looking at the young, brave men kneeling and wiping the sweat off their brows, some still panting, he knew he could have lost many today if not for...
He looked into Elenna's face again.
Was it possible?
"For now, let's return to the base camp," he said to his men. "We need to rest. Tomorrow we'll return, take care of the bodies and see to warding the pass so another demon won't come here."
They looked at him gratefully. The battle had been difficult, as was looking at the body parts of their comrades. Tomorrow would be a grim day.
He carried the girl himself. A few of his soldiers looked as though they would offer, but with a frown from Kelda, they backed away.
"We need to talk when we get back to camp," Kelda whispered in his ear. "I want to know exactly what passed between you and Gosta."
Elenna awoke snuggled in several blankets near a blazing fire. It would have been pleasant except for the fact that she was shivering violently, despite her close proximity to the flames. She tried to lift her head but even breathing seemed to be an effort. She closed her eyes again in misery, but it was almost like she had a dreadful fever; she was in too much pain to sleep. The noise of the fire seemed loud in her ears and the hushed voices of the soldiers seemed to echo. She'd never been in such agony in her life. It felt like every limb had been ripped from her body, trampled upon and then sewn back together. She was sweating profusely but couldn't get warm. She wanted to vomit.
She whimpered in agony.
"Princess?" asked a youthful male voice. "Are you awake?"
His voice echoed strangely in her ears. She knew she should answer him. He sounded so concerned.
She pried her aching eyes open to look in the direction of the voice. He was young and had curling blond hair with bright blue eyes. Yes, she remembered him. She'd seen him around many times in the past few days; he was one of the personal guards of the prince, but she didn't know him. She remembered seeing him stand protectively in front of Rhogan after he collapsed fighting the...demon.
She took a labored breath and closed her eyes again in horror.
A demon! She'd seen a demon. She'd...
"Princess?" called the young bodyguard. His voice sounded more concerned than before. She knew she should answer him, but she couldn't.
A maelstrom of emotion-charged memories overwhelmed her; Entrari and his men fighting a magical battle against a vicious, bellowing monster. She remembered everything with clarity; the death, the horror, the monster, and yet she wished that it was simply a hallucination brought about from delirium. She couldn't force the nightmare to stop and it dragged her back through those terrible moments. She recalled the men about her; hardened soldiers, sorcerers, and yet even their eyes had been filled with fear. Their shouts, the demon's bellows; it had forced her to her knees in terror. She remembered her desperate plea to her mother to her ancestors. She cried out in dismay as the memory of their response sent a painful shudder through her trembling body.
She'd never felt such power. Power so incredible her body felt as though it had been torn apart, power so incredible it opened the gates between the earth and the freezing halls of the Abyss.
And now she was cold; so cold. It was a bitter chill that penetrated to her soul. It was as though the icy fingers of death were reaching out to her, trying to drag her through the very gates she had opened.
She clenched her hands in weak defiance. Pain shot from her palms, reminding her of the tender wounds she'd inflicted upon herself. The wounds were important.
She couldn't even acknowledge him now. She took an agonized, shuddering breath and struggled to maintain conscious long enough to think. The throbbing in her palms meant something. They were important. She focused on her broken memory once again; the deafening sound of each drop of blood hitting the ground, the awesome power that infused her as her life dripped away... a blood sacrifice; the most wretched and powerful of all Druid rites.
Perhaps that was why she was so important. Her blood, her prayers, her body could do something others could not; open the gates to the abyss. The Last Descendant of Beoren didn't mean she was a princess of the Druids, it meant she was a sacrificial beast; a sacrifice to keep the denizens of the dark at bay. Perhaps she would have to do this countless times. Over and over, she would have to mutilate her body. Over and over she would wake up to this...agony.
She wanted to wail in despair, but she couldn't manage anything but a weak whimper. It was all a lie! She'd been betrayed! She was some beast to be tortured and bled. Tears leaked from her eyes, but she couldn't stop them. She gasped hiccoughing breaths, but she couldn't get enough air in her lungs. She wanted to scream, she wanted to run, she wanted to...
"Princess!" the blond guard almost shouted. "Your highness! Come quickly."
"Elenna," she heard Entrari call. His voice seemed to come from a distance.
Still she couldn't force herself to respond. Her breaths started to come in little pants as the world around her seemed to fade away.
"Princess," Entrari's voice called to her.
He caressed her cheek gently, and brushed her hair behind her ears, whispering something she couldn't quite understand. His touch seemed to pull her back from the darkness. The freezing claws from the abyss that threatened to drag her into its icy halls couldn't take hold of her. In her dark and hazy world, he seemed like some golden god, his soul glowed brightly and he was warm. His presence had a magnetic quality, pulling her towards him and away from despair.
"It's all right," he said softly, brushing her tears away. "You're all right."
Elenna pried her eyes open once again to look into his, and then was trapped in his gaze. She could feel his strength, his magic, his warmth, and for once she could hear tenderness in his voice. He seemed to know what she needed and reached out to pull her into his arms, holding her close. His chainmail was hard and unyielding, but his embrace was gentle and comforting. For a moment, she relinquished her pride and clung to him mutely; absorbing whatever comfort and strength he was willing to give.
Gradually her violent shivering subsided and the heavy weight on her chest that made it so painful to breathe lifted. She took a deep breath, inhaling his warm scent greedily, for he didn't smell like death, and she realized that was all she remembered smelling.
"Better?" he asked his voice still gentle.
She nodded mutely. He probably had no clue how close she had been... She looked up into his eyes again to see that he was staring at her thoughtfully. He wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumb; it was another tender gesture from what she considered to be a violent, frightening man. She looked back up at his face uncertainly and she was surprised to see an array of emotions flicker in his eyes. She couldn't pull away from that gaze, though this time he didn't use magic to hold her stare. Finally he looked down and took her hands in his.
Her eyes followed his to stare at the deep gouges in her palms. They were red and angry, though the wounds had been cleaned.
"Can I heal these?" he asked.
It seemed like he was asking more than if she wanted him to, but she couldn't decide what he really meant by his question. She did note that it was the first time he'd ever asked permission to heal her, and she knew it was significant, but she was still too weary. Though Entrari's presence and magic had somehow banished the evil that surrounded her, it did nothing to cure her aching weariness. She nodded mutely. At this point, anything to lessen her suffering would help.
He reached out and touched his palm to the side of her face again. She cringed in preparation; it seemed that healing magic always seemed to come with a little pain. He chanted softly and she felt the familiar wave of dizziness. How many times had he done this spell on her already? Twice? Three times? As the wounds in her palms seemed to slowly disappear she couldn't get over the power of such a simple incantation.
"There," he said gently, taking her hand back to inspect his work.
She smiled wanly at him. Something about him was different. He wasn't acting like she expected. He was actually being nice. She wondered how long it could possibly last. Elenna stared at him like he might be going crazy, but even her incredulous looks didn't dissuade him. He coaxed her gently to eat, and then made sure that she was snuggled into enough blankets so she wouldn't be too cold. He joined her a few hours later chuckling in her ear.
"Even with all the blankets, you're still cold? Perhaps having me around isn't such a bad thing, princess."
She chose not to answer, but she did snuggle against him gratefully. Obviously she wasn't made to travel around on horseback like Entrari and his knights. She was looking forward to returning to the castle of Hartstak. She decided that it really wasn't as drafty as she first thought.
The next day was a solemn one. Entrari and his men tended to the bodies of their comrades, though they were so mangled and destroyed, that they had to do a mass grave. Elenna had never seen anything so terrible, and it sickened her to think of how the brave men had suffered. Though she was no longer connected to the power of the earth through her blood, the screams and pleas of the fallen still echoed in her ears. They were horrible to hear. She looked at the still silent forest and shuddered. It would be a long time before these woods were truly silent again, though few had the ears to hear the cries of spirits.
When they finished the burial mound, the knights stood mutely as Gosta said a benediction over their bodies. Elenna struggled to translate; the words were obviously ancient and ceremonial, but she gathered they were beautiful. It was something to the effect of joining their ancestors, standing in their presence with honor, and being remembered by those who still lived as heroes.
She found herself agreeing with those ideas and added her own prayer to Gosta's. Perhaps the men of Haladon weren't as blood-thirsty and wicked as she once thought. Looking at the mound of the dead, she found herself wondering if she would have done anything differently knowing that their enemies had such terrible minions at their command. Perhaps she would have marched over the West, consolidating the small kingships into an Empire as well. What would she sacrifice to keep things like the mutilation of these soldiers from happening again?
She looked at her palms. She knew what she would have to sacrifice; herself.
The entire forest felt different with the disappearance of the demon. The towering trees that seemed to loom over them seemed beautiful and majestic again. The zing of tension that had sent shivers down her spine was gone, as was the sickening feeling in her stomach. The only thing that was still missing was the sound of life; of animals and birds.
Once the bodies had been tended to, Entrari and his men rode about in clusters using their sorcery to whisper some kind of spell. The power of it made her tremble, but strangely the magic didn't seem to do anything.
"Gosta," she whispered to him after he'd performed the spell yet again. "What are you doing?"
"Feel that, eh?" he teased.
"We're putting wards on this place. They should stretch for several hundred miles if we do them correctly. You just have to search for the right currents of magic in the earth," he said closing his eyes again and whispering something else.
"Is that why everyone seems to be riding about aimlessly?" she asked curiously.
He opened an eye and chuckled. "It's not aimless."
Elenna sighed. She would probably never understand.
"When a sorcerer feels a current," Entrari said, "he casts a spell. The magic is taken on that current and radiates out for quite a distance. With so many of us finding these currents and casting the spell, we are creating a net. The net keeps the demon from returning to this place."
Elenna looked at the prince curiously. Obviously the kindness from last night hadn't run out yet. She might as well take it while she had the chance.
"So now the only way they can cross is by marching their troops?"
Entrari nodded. "We'll leave a garrison here, too. They'll barricade the area as best as they can. It's good we have so many trees handy. The wood will be quite useful."
She looked at the men as they seemed to wander aimlessly then stop and chant. It was a comical sight, if she didn't feel the power blasting about her. Feeling such power all around her was rather stunning. She wondered thoughtfully if they felt the same surge of power when she tapped into the spiritual world. Perhaps not. Sorcerers seemed oblivious to nature; they seemed to want to dominate it rather than seek understanding.
"That should be about it," said Kelda riding back up to them.