She fled through the forest with her breathing ragged and her bright blue eyes flashing wildly as she made her way past obstacles and across the snowy ground, painfully aware that the white powder would leave a clear trail for her pursuers to follow. Yet there was no time to backtrack now, not without risking her being surrounded by them…
Her left arm that was caked with dry blood hung uselessly down her side while the gash across her shoulder continued to throb with a strange intensity that continually wracked her with pain. Her pale skin was aflush with exhaustion and her clothes—one fur-lined leather full bodysuit was ripped and torn in multiple places, testament of the battle she had fought.
A sudden scream of torment broke through the silence that had permeated the air, followed closely by triumphant roars as the scream slowly died off. The woman looked around, cringing in horror at the mental image implied by those fell cries before she picked up her pace. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears now, but she willed herself to be strong and continued to run.
Shortly after the first, there came a second scream that further wracked her with revulsion. The first tear trickled down her cheek and opened the floodgates as she now wept openly, no longer able to stem the tide of tears. Her functional right arm clutched a gleaming runeblade tightly, its familiar weight in her hand providing some assurance to her anxious heart. Its twin hung in its scabbard, her left arm unable to bear it any longer.
The mockingly tranquil silence reigned throughout the Yser once more but she continued to run, pushing past low-lying branches and wintry shrubs before finally coming to a large lake, which had been frozen over. Looking around, she gauged her surroundings for any sign of the enemy and when none were forthcoming, she decided to take a moment's breather.
She brushed out the tracks nearest to her position before she leaned back against the ancient bark of a massive pine tree wearily and brushed aside the tears which continued to trickle freely down her cheeks now. A brief glance downwards at the black blood upon her blade seemed to remind her of her own losses and with a trembling whimper while clutching the runeblade free in her arm to her breast, she whispered in grief, "Tidar, Isma; I am so sorry."
Her shoulder continued to ache with a burning sensation and she massaged it in an attempt to ease the pain. "How did this all happen?" she questioned herself bitterly and in spite of her precarious position, she began to reminiscence of the events that had brought her to this place...
She flipped through the filmy pages of the little devotion book she customarily carried about with her, pondering on the message contained within the tiny printed characters that stared back up at her. Maia adjusted her reading glasses slightly when a tiny snore drew her attention to the man seated across her.
He was tall, his bent legs resting upon the cushioned seat on which she sat currently. His arms were folded across his chest, his forearms thick and his large biceps clearly defined in the tight shirt that covered his lean torso. His skin was pale in color despite all the months she knew he had spent outbound, the single most distinguishable feature of his race—the Daim.
Inhabitants of the bitterly cold and mostly barren plains of Myriad, the northernmost continent; the Daim were a hardy and resilient race that was exceptionally blessed with foresight and innovation, allowing them to develop many of the finest inventions and technologies that were now staple in civilizations all round the known world. Regretfully, together with their magnificent intellect came a less desirable racial trait that commonly afflicted the Daim—the concept of a master race that the Daim were the embodiment of.
That philosophy had seen the forefathers of the Daim establish the Imperium centuries ago, a sprawling empire that currently spanned the entire breadth of the Myriad continent as well as a good third of the Phacien continent to the east, having been built over the years through blood and steel.
Maia continued to observe the man sleeping comfortably for a few moments before turning back to her devotion book, humming peacefully to herself only to frown in disapproval as her companion abruptly shifted position in his sleep, leaving his legs upon her lap.
"Tidar," she murmured aloud, knowing the man to be a light sleeper and he promptly opened his eyes and regarded her blearily. Maia smiled slightly before tapping his shins and he deftly swung his feet off her lap while muttering a half-hearted apology as he stretched.
"What time is it?" the Hunter asked wearily. She handed him a pocket watch which he inspected before tossing it aside carelessly with a loud yawn.
"Hey!" she exclaimed as she recovered the timepiece, "That was a gift from the Maester!"
"Sorry," Tidar replied without the slightest hint of regret in his tone, before breaking into a small smile as he looked at her, "Relax Maia, even if the mechanism breaks, I will be able to repair it easily."
"You may be a mechanical whiz, Tidar but this means more to me than just being a timepiece!" Maia retorted in good humor. "Had a good rest?"
"I would have had one, had a little Grand Magus not interrupted it so callously simply because I accidentally deposited my legs on her lap," he chuckled before evading her punch of retaliation and plucked her reading glasses from the bridge of her nose with a neat flourish. "I wonder if wearing spectacles will improve my image?" he commented lightly as he grinned goofily at her with her glasses barely fitting his face.
"You horrible man!" Maia pretended to be furious as she swiped back her glasses, "And for the record, it does wonders for your image." Her friend then beamed for the fraction of a second before she jibed, "It completes your bookworm image!"
"Hey!" Tidar protested none-too-fervently and Maia giggled, failing to keep a straight face. It was difficult sometimes to believe that he was some thirteen years older than her; him in his early thirties while she only turned twenty some four months prior, given his somewhat youthful outlook or rather his occasional immature behavior if one was to put it bluntly. But when cut came down to the chase, Maia knew Tidar to be more than capable of performing his duties.
They soon settled down into a comfortable silence broken only by an attentive steward who served them their breakfast and Maia was soon indulging in freshly baked bread with a hot tasty soup that served to warm her cooling blood. Even in the heated environment of the train, the extreme chill that pervaded the outside could not be warded off entirely.
"How does your kind ever tolerate this bitter cold?" Maia asked before consuming a tablespoon of her broth with gusto, relishing the warmth the liquid provided.
Tidar shrugged as he tore off a good sized chunk of bread and replied, "I cannot really help you there; I was born and bred in Havan just like you."
"I see," she murmured as she sipped her soup demurely, thinking of the place she currently called home. Havan, the massive city-state located in the very heart of the world beneath the shadow of the towering Haladyr range. Since time immemorial, the state had adopted a stance of political neutrality and remained aloof of the quibbles of its neighbors which given Havan's central position were all of the five nations of the homme—the intellectual Daim, the zealous Corinthos, the reclusive Aesir, the insidious Feldrakyn and the bestial Hym.
By custom, her homeland had always been ruled by a Lady descended from the line of the great Lord High Protector Lucias who had defeated the Great Destroyer Abaddon a millennia ago in the Hyvan plains. However, a strange series of events some twenty years ago had seen the ruling Lady of the time, the Lady Eve, disappear into darkness and the rule of the great citadel had fallen by default to the Order of Hyvanna, previously the military arm of Havan.
The very Order that both she and Tidar were members of, him as a Hunter—the Hyvan equivalent of the Daim Myrmidons and Corinthos Crusaders, and her as a Grand Magus, a member of the largest contingent of battle-mages in existence across the known world.
Maia may not have been the youngest to attain such a distinction, but the mere thought of the title she possessed warmed her a little. She had worked so hard for the past four years, almost as long as she had known Tidar who had trained her in blade mastery and she had finally been attained the honor accorded to her but a month ago.
If only her first assignment was not to the bitterly cold wastes of the Myriad continent…
She smiled discreetly as she observed the blizzard outside the relative warmth of the private booth she shared with Tidar. 'Who was complaining anyway?' she thought wryly as she luxuriated in her consumption of the broth.
"How was life like in the Imperial Palace?" Tidar asked abruptly, his eyes twinkling in amusement.
"Ostentatious," Maia replied with a small smile. "Their bathtubs were made out of platinum." Havan was a respected name across the world and as a visiting representative of the great city-state, it was her obligation to pay her respects to the ruling class of the Imperium. In fact, etiquette and formal mannerisms had constituted part of her training as Grand Magus often mingled in high society settings on their dispatches across the globe.
He whistled tonelessly and asked, "Did you have the opportunity to meet up with the Emperor himself?"
"No," Maia said, "I met the heir presumptive however, the royal prince Aldor Rommel. He was the one who formally received me."
"Odd, I thought he would have been busy given the situation on the Western Front," Tidar muttered. She could only shrug helplessly for if she were to be honest, she too had been slightly confused by the Crown Prince's presence in the Daim capital of Dai'vyaz.
Her thoughts skimmed over one of the two great wars that were occurring now… The Western Front was a massive chunk of contested land situated between the continents of Myriad and Corinth, homeland to the Corinthos who were the devout disciples of the being they called the Halar—the professed Creator and God of the world. The Daim on the other hand worshipped science if anything. Given their perception of themselves as an enlightened race, they could not comprehend the concept of worshipping a superior invisible being and thought the Corinthos to be weak as they sought to subjugate them.
Little did they realize the fearsomeness and perseverance of a zealot's will. For years now the Corinthos and the Daim had battled each other into near insensibility; the Daim's technological advantage offset by the numbers and the determination of the Corinthos.
The great generals—the Paladin-General Lazarus Eisenhower of Corinthos, Field Marshal Aldor Rommel and 1st Hierarch Elias von Bismarck of the Daim Imperium continually clashed minds as each sought to outmaneuver the other. Neither had managed to gain a great advantage for so effective were their strategies developed till the Western Front had ultimately been bogged down into a long battle of attrition.
So, to witness the Crown Prince back home as if on holiday when hundreds were dying daily in the Western Front and to act so casually as if nothing of any significance was going on had truly baffled her. And while his presence in Dai'vyaz baffled her, what she found most disconcerting was his utterly flirtatious manner. The memories of their first and subsequent meetings soon brought an unwanted flush to her face as Tidar grinned knowingly.
"Did you find him irresistible?"
"No!" Maia said, perhaps a tad too quickly and was promptly rewarded by Tidar's broadening grin.
"Come now, Maia, you are a pretty young woman and he's a dashing chap. Maybe a tad too old for you however but still… And he is single! Think about it, the entire Imperium is probably waiting on bated breath for its very own Crown Prince and five star general to take a wife!"
She blushed despite her best efforts and Tidar laughed uproariously. "Be quiet, Tidar," she sputtered before breaking into a smile herself and finally joined in his laughter.
Once their laughter had subsided, Maia giggled, "It could never work between us anyway, Tidar. Half of the Imperial Senate would die of coronaries if Aldor were even to take a significant interest in me. Imagine, the Crown Prince taking a mongrel to be his eternally wedded."
Tidar frowned and said seriously, "Please do not degrade yourself so, Maia."
She shrugged and said, "That is how everyone here perceives me anyway. Why bother denying the truth that most of them here despise me for my heritage?"
Maia shared Corinthos and Aesir blood, both of whom were the archenemies of the Daim. Her father was an Aesir, a race that inhabited the Phacien continent and was currently fighting a brutal guerilla war against the Daim. Mystics and worshippers of nature, their ire had been immediately aroused when the Daim had invaded their lands and then wantonly laid waste to their lush forests and they had since launched a losing albeit bitter war since.
The hatred between both races had especially intensified in recent times with the emergence of the one the Daim called the Witch Elyanna. Rumor had it that she slaughtered a whole battalion of conscripts single-handedly and assassinated countless members of the minor nobility that ruled over the Phacien Protectorates, and her Rangers had grown to become as feared a unit as the famous Crusaders of Corinthos.
Her mother of course was of Corinthos blood and passed on to her the distinctive raven hair and high cheekbones commonly attributed to the Corinthos while her father passed to her startlingly blue eyes, the hallmark of the Aesir. With such distinguishable features, she had openly drawn stares from the nobility in Dai'vyaz which needless to be said was a nerve-wracking experience.
"I think living in Havan all your life has muted your inherent prejudice towards other races," she teased Tidar who shrugged good-naturedly.
"Their loss," the Daim Hunter grinned. "What was the Crown Prince like anyway?"
"Younger than I had expected for a five star general," Maia murmured thoughtfully, "I would have placed him only in his mid-thirties and by comparison the majority of the Imperial Senate were doddering senile folk alongside him."
He grunted knowingly and Maia immediately turned a few shades pinker as she muttered, "And he is impeccably polite and certainly knows how to charm women. Satisfied?"
"Right," Tidar drawled amicably but to her relief did not push the matter further.
They bantered in that same fashion for several moments before Maia began to feel the strain of the incessant traveling she had undergone in the past month catching up with her. She yawned softly and Tidar smiled at her sympathetically and said, "I reckon you had better catch up on some sleep before we reach Anthien. It will be hectic going once we meet up with Isma."
"I am sorry," she began but yawned again.
Tidar squeezed her shoulder with some affection and joked, "I never quite thought I was that boring however, that you could fall asleep while talking with me."
Maia suppressed her mirth and deadpanned, "I am sorry for being so blunt."
She laughed before curling up contentedly upon the comfortable cushion and muttered to the Hunter who observed her silently, "Good night then, Tidar." He nodded in response as she shut her eyes and asleep in a matter of minutes.
She had woken up the next morning feeling disgustingly fresh, or at least that was what Tidar was said. Being more of a nocturnal person, mornings were ghastly for Tidar. She had delighted in teasing him the whole morning about his grumpy disposition till they had met up with Isma, a fellow Hunter who like Tidar had also served as her blade trainer. When the mission was first put forward to her, she had been relieved to learn that he too had been detailed to Maia's escort in Anthien, the largest town in the distant north.
Truth be told, Anthien itself held little interest for the Imperium, let alone the Order of Hyvanna to warrant the dispatch of a Grand Magus. Its distant position in the wastelands of the north gave it little strategic importance to the Imperium and as such the city was treated as mostly a deportation centre for the unwanted; mostly refugees seeking haven in the advanced civilization of the Daim only for their hopes to be brutally crushed as they realized that the Daim had little desire for their presence.
Her concern was rather with the village of Le Saville in the distant north-west, the reason being the recent filing of an alarming report filed in by the local Daim administration.
A sighting of a creature so long thought fictional, with only ancient and cryptic stories mentioning their existence and the veracity of their contents could be classified as no less than highly doubtable…
Merchants traveling along the Saville-Anthien road had glimpsed what they took to be demons, though their accounts were rather sketchy at best. This alone would not have warranted her presence but in recent times however, there had been a spate of often-fatal attacks against the local populace and survivors were often found scarcely rational, their minds turned into wrecks. The Daim authorities had been alarmed and via a long chain of high-level discussions had ultimately decided to request aid from Hyvanna.
Nothing was yet evident, but Maia's orders were clear. Investigate the merchants' reports and come back with proof concerning the presence of such fiends, be they negative or positive. The Daim were to provide her with a complementary escort, not that it was really needed in truth. Rather, the Daim simply disliked foreigners having a completely free run in their affairs, especially one whose ancestry could be traced to both their greatest foes.
They traveled from Anthien atop mounts that Isma had procured along with four Myrmidons, the formidable elite of the Daim military. As was to be expected, they had been non-too-friendly, their body language almost hostile when they had brashly introduced themselves to the two newcomers.
The long journey had provided them ample opportunity for conversation, ranging from the reminiscing of memories to the speculation of the unknown before them. Maia had at one point asked her Aesir companion curiously, "What do you think, Isma? Do you think they really exist?"
"My grandfather once told me of them, as according to his grandfather… He described them as seven foot grizzly beings, their bodies consisting of little but pure muscle and shaggy fur," the Aesir said, his eyes darting around as they urged their mounts forward into the thick forestry of the Yser, the great pine forest lying on the foothills of the Daimyar which separated Anthien from the more distant Le Saville. "Whether it was an ancient folktale or truth…that is another matter altogether."
"That does not sound too appealing," she murmured, spurring her gallant steed forward, keeping pace with the Daim Myrmidons who had brusquely swept them by atop their nifty land cruisers.
Tidar, riding alongside her chuckled and said, "They probably do not even exist. A figment of the uneducated imagination, I'm guessing."
"Always a skeptic, Tidar," Isma retorted in amusement.
"What do you think they saw then?" Maia asked thoughtfully.
"A yeti. They're common out there in the hinterlands and given their bulky appearance, it is little wonder why those merchants could have mistaken them for demons."
"That would be a bit of an anti-climax, if it were true," Isma murmured.
"Isma, your choice of words could not have been any worse," Maia whispered sadly.
There was a slight scuffling behind her. She whirled around quickly and spotted a small imp creeping around, its ugly features distorted into an expression of concentration. It was sniffing the ground, clearly seeking out something and Maia's blood ran cold as she glimpsed belatedly a trickle of her blood clearly standing out against the white backdrop of the snowy ground. The imp stumbled upon it only seconds later before standing up on its hind legs, clearly alerted to the possibility of her presence there.
The imp shuffled forward cautiously, now sniffing the air loudly. Maia gauged the wind and found it to be against the fiend—her scent would not be carried to the demon for now but nevertheless, she knew that she had to act quickly. As the imp crept closer still, Maia prepared her blade to strike swiftly... She had to take it in a single strike.
Ultimately, it was a hidden branch beneath the snow that proved to be her undoing. As she lunged forward, she stepped heavily onto the brittle twig and its crack alerted the fiend. Before she could silence it, it had already uttered a piercing shriek that momentarily deafened her till her blade ripped through its throat.
She looked around fearfully as the lesser demon's shriek echoed throughout the still forest, all of her sense seeming to reach a plane beyond normal. Then, she heard the response that she had been dreading. A multitude of terrible roars resounded throughout the forest before a great pounding took place. The chaotic beat of heavy plodding footsteps; all of which was headed towards her.
She swore under her breath and took off again, looking to run along the banks of the frozen lake. However, to her chagrin, several behemoths burst forth from the forest within seconds, snarling terribly as they spotted her.
They charged towards her, brandishing their maces furiously, their bloody maws agape as they unleashed terrifying howls. Maia swore again and turned on her heel to flee, only to catch a glimpse of two additional behemoths smashing their way on the opposite end, blocking her other escape route.
"Halar consecrate Thy servant," she whispered softly, quaking as the demons made for her. Her mind soon formulated a solution however as she looked about, though she knew the risk involved would be grave.
Without warning, she dashed towards the lake and away from the startled demons that had clearly not anticipated such an action. Howling loudly in chagrin and confusion, they rushed forward only to skid on the slippery ice and several fell heavily after losing their footing.
Issuing a silent prayer of thanks, she dashed across the lake, wincing as she heard the beginnings of a crack form across the frozen surface of the lake. "Let it not break," she whispered, willing the ice to hold firm.
Picking themselves up, the demons continued their frenetic pursuit of her; their bloodlust overcoming all rationality now. Without a moment's consideration did they rush clumsily forward, ignoring all danger signs such as the cracks forming in the solid surface and also the slight creaking of the thin layer.
Maia very nearly slipped, but managed to catch her balance. Out of breath with her stamina dwindling rapidly, she realized bitterly, 'I will not escape this predicament… Unless…'
She abruptly turned on her heel and deliberately leapt backwards, sliding back-down across the lake. The risks were great, she realized, for should the ice be too weak already, she would most definitely plunge into the freezing waters of the lake beneath. Yet, with little other alternative, she decided to gamble. Facing the stunned demons, she aimed and cried, "Frost Scrye!"
Her fingers glowed with an eerie blue light before unleashing a powerful icy pulse which tore into the first few behemoths, shredding their flesh and splattering their blood everywhere.
The fiends screamed in agony, clawing madly at the gaping wounds that had been inflicted upon them only for the following demons to shove them aside mercilessly, their ugly yellow eyes reflecting only their desire to run Maia through. Compassion for their comrades seemed an alien concept to them.
One monstrosity charged forward recklessly to her alarm. She scrambled to her feet, cursing as she slipped several times and just managed to raise her runeblade to block a downward blow which could have easily claimed her head. Below her, the ice cracked again, the sound infinitely ominous to her ears. Grunting in pain, she kicked her assailant in the gut, sending it sprawling on the ice.
The Grand Magus then looked up, only to see a dull shortsword sweeping towards her. She let loose a cry of surprise, her reflexes guiding her to leap backwards and avoid the thrust meant for her neck. The fiend howled in frustration, pulling its sword back before, to Maia's alarm, pouncing on her.
She sidestepped its clumsy attempt easily but the demon's weight, crashing against the already fragile surface… The consequences were easily predictable.
The cracks grew more pronounced, and the entire sheet of ice that had enveloped the lake split asunder. Both demons and Maia fell into the icy waters below, the nerves throughout their body crackling into frenzied activity with the freezing temperatures.
Maia gasped as she burst out of the water, somehow managing to grab onto a passing block of ice. The demons on the other hand howled in terror as they sank into the depths below. Weighed down by their heavy armor they could not escape, all of their efforts to keep afloat futile at best.
The Grand Magus, calling upon all of her reserves hauled herself up onto the nearest wedge of ice, knowing well the consequences of frostbite. Shivering with the cold and exhausted by her physical exertion, she collapsed onto its surface, gasping for precious breath and energy. She may have utilized the element of ice but no amount of magic could compensate for the weakness of the flesh—she was no elemental as to thrive in her chosen element. No, she would suffer as a mortal would; for such was the design of the Halar in creating the homme.
'So tired,' she thought, half-delirious now.
Move, her mind told her.
"I cannot," she murmured in her delirium, trembling uncontrollably now.
You will die if you stay here.
'I know but I…' Unwillingly, her eyes began to shut tight and her functions ceased slowly, her body succumbing to the extreme cold now.
Her last thought before slipping into unconsciousness was that the falling snowflakes were so beautiful.