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Chapter I: Calm Before the Storm
Selene awoke in her cot, gasping for air as sweat beaded down her brow. After a moment spent calming herself, she sighed.
It’s the same dream. Every night the same dream.
She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
Past experience showed she would not find sleep again, regardless of the hour before daybreak. Unlike others in the Hollow, Selene had not yet experienced a change in her dreams. Each night, she saw the great eye of a beast in the waters above her. It stared through her, as if trying to communicate something. She could never remember what it was when she awoke.
That would be fine, if I could at least fall back asleep again, Selene thought bitterly.
Rising from bed, she quickly grabbed her things and decided to meet the day now rather than lay in bed bored out of her skull.
Careful not to wake Ari, she crept out of the room and headed towards the rooftop. The War Council decided all civilians and militiamen would move inside the estate. As a fortress and last line of defense for the Hollow, the estate was filled with empty rooms for soldiers to use during a siege. Room enough so the entire population managed to fit, if only just.
Thanks to Jezran, the party was given special quarters on the third level, alongside all the Governor’s knights.
Despite Merus’s return to sanity with the absence of the skull, it was clear he was still paranoid. Keeping an armed company nearby seemed to alleviate the worst of it.
This worked fine for Selene, as it gave her easy access to a lovely view of the sunrise.
She stood out on the rooftop, watching the mists gather around the makeshift barricades and traps prepared along the roads in the Hollow.
It was a marvel to behold, watching the sun rise with a cloud of mists floating lazily into the air. Higher and higher, until the skies were once again overcast. A haze would always remain, limiting the detail and scope of sight, but it was far removed from the blanketing fogs one found when wandering the streets at night.
Hard to believe our progress. Selene mused, That first night was terrible, but it seems to have paid off.
It had been two days since they returned to the Hollow. Two days of worrying, two days of watching the horizon, and two days of preparing for the inevitable.
The only bright patch in all this fear and misery was Hamish. He had been so kind to her since they shared their stories. He even promised not to tell anyone else and that he would keep calling her Selene, for the time being.
Something had changed in their relationship, though. Selene now knew she could trust him completely and fully. Despite herself, a warmth filled her that had died out two years ago. A warmth that made her realize just how cold she had been since Arveene’s death, how lonely she had become.
She hoped to never lose this feeling again.
The sound of a scream interrupted her thoughts. Without hesitation, she rushed back down the steps to see what was happening.
As she descended the steps, she discerned that it was not one cry, but countless.
Reaching the bottom of the steps, she saw the reason for their screams. Countless squids scuttled along the hallways, flinging themselves at exposed faces to begin the grisly process of becoming Drowned. Their success was swiftly shown, as Drowned flooded through the floor behind them. A few seemed already successful, as a few newly formed Drowned now stumbled down the Halls in search of prey of their own.
Some in the horde she recognized as knights, others she guessed were militia from the lower levels. Counterattacks were already mounting as a few knights, still dressed in sleeping attire, cut into the newly formed Drowned and several servants, armed only with knives or shattered pottery, worked together to fight back against the squids on the walls and floor.
This is why I don’t change for sleep, Selene thought, drawing her daggers and slashing a nearby squid in half, Bad things happen, and if you’re not ready to run at the drop of a hat, you’re dead.
On that note, the half prepared knights and servants were holding their own against the shambling Drowned and squids.
Continuing down the hall, striking Drowned and squid alike, Selene searched for the rest of her party.
They should be okay…right? Selene thought as haunting images came unbidden to her mind. She could not help but imagine the sight of Argent, Ari, Jezran, or worst of all, Hamish’s half-dead shambling corpse rounding the corner ahead of her.
Fear gripping her stomach, she sped up her pace as she turned around a corner, further down the hall.
However, a moment later, she stopped.
Something dashed out from the corner of her eye. Turning back the way she came, she scanned the hall around her.
It was remarkably bereft of conflict. The din of fighting could be heard down the hall, but nobody was nearby. Eventually, her eyes fell upon the door of the Governor’s room. Similar to the study, it was clearly designed with some fortification in mind. Selene did not know the interior, but it had a heavy door made of some kind of glossed wood. It appeared as the kind of door designed as a last defense, and true to that expectation, Selene had never seen it open or unlocked within the last couple days.
That door was now, ever so slightly, ajar.
A sense of foreboding rose up in her throat.
Putting aside the matter of her friends for a moment, Selene crept quietly toward the door. With daggers readied, she slammed it open. Her eyes pierced the darkness of the room as she scanned about, searching for any sign of trouble.
The bedroom was surprisingly small. Similar to the rest of the estate, it was remarkably mundane. Outside the heavy door blocking it, Selene could not see any unique distinction from any of the other rooms. There were sparse belongings, making the search for anything far easier.
She did not see anything.
A cry from down the hall echoed inside the room, causing something on the bed to stir. The Governor, who had apparently slept through the Drowned assault, rose up to a seated position. Bleary eyed, Merus stared at her a moment. Before he could speak, something dropped from the ceiling above.
It was a squid.
Landing on the Governor’s face, its tendrils latched themselves over his face. Despite their small size, they were remarkably strong, holding against the Governor’s fingers as he desperately tried to pull it off. It did not even budge. Using its grip on the Governor’s face, it began pushing and pulling at his mouth.
While Merus continued to claw at the squid with an increasing desperation, it began forcing his jaws wide open.
Okay, not good. Very not good.
Time was of the essence. Yet Selene had no time to reach him.
Okay, what was it Argent said about throwing knives? Distance defines the throw? Okay...let’s see…
Selene ran quickly through the motions in her mind. The squid had now managed to open the Governor’s jaws far enough to begin forcing itself inside.
No more time to think.
In a flash of motion, she grabbed a throwing knife from her bracer and flung it with all her might at the squid.
For a moment, time seemed to slow as the knife left her fingertips. She gave a silent prayer as it spun.
Please hit the squid, please hit the squid please hit the—
The blade found its mark, sinking deep into flesh. The squid froze suddenly as the blade sank to the hilt in the center of its mass. Selene let out a breath she had not realized she was holding. Its grip weakened, Merus managed to pull it out of his mouth and threw it across the room. The creature flailed for a moment, then collapsed against the floor.
Selene and Merus’ eyes met as they both sucked in deep gulps of air. His eyes reflected the same fear she felt. Selene’s knees gave out as, at that point, she realized just how close she came to seeing the Governor die in front of her.
That…was too close.
A moment later, Ser Jacob burst into the room, “My lord, we were just a…”
The knight trailed off as his eyes fell on the dead squid and the panicked expression of the Governor, he then added, “I see you are already aware.”
“Y-yes, S-ser..Jacob,” Merus croaked, his voice raspy as he struggled to speak between fits of coughing, “A–are we…safe now?”
He nodded, “Yes, but we lost a few knights and at least a dozen others.”
Merus struggled to mutter a curse beneath his breath before falling into another fit of coughs, “We will care…for them after we survive…Ser Jacob. For now, make…s–sure the bodies are… l–locked up, and…let the militia know they’ll need to…i–increase their patrols and…tell them we’ll likely need to double up on watch. If they have other ideas, let them know we stand to aid them in whatever way we can.”
Ser Jacob gave a salute, then exited the room to complete his task.
The Governor turned finally to Selene, regaining some strength in his voice, “That was…incredible, young one. That is now the second time you’ve saved me.”
Selene, having regained control of her body, grinned as she rose to her feet, “All in a day’s work for an adventurer like me.”
Merus nodded, head bowed, “Regardless, I owe you a great debt. You have my thanks.”
“O—oh,” Selene said, slightly taken aback. Have I ever been thanked like this before? Heat rushed to her cheeks and she quietly nodded.
At that moment, Argent and the rest of the party burst into the room.
“We passed by Ser Jacob on the way here, Are you alright, Merus?” Jezran asked, pushing himself through the rest of the party.
“Yes, I am fine, my friend,” Merus smiled weakly, “It just appears my age is catching up to me. I would not have slept through this attack but a year ago. But now…”
Argent interjected before he could continue.
“Time is not our friend,” Argent stated bluntly, “I suggest we focus on the matter at hand.”
“Of…of course,” Merus said, regaining his composure, “If they struck here, the real attack is soon to follow. Brother Hamish, I suggest you light the fire. It is best we make preparations for battle.”
Hamish nodded grimly, then swiftly left the room.
Selene followed, without another word. If they were preparing for battle, the group would soon be separated, so this would be the last chance to speak with Hamish.
The last time…before…
She shook those thoughts out of her head as they walked together in silence. The bonfire was set in the central courtyard of the estate, so they descended several flights of stairs. The chaos of the previous attack was over, but the damage remained. Drowned and squid corpses still lay fallen beside those that fought to slay them. Blood spatters still marked the walls and muffled sobs could be heard in quiet corners as many sought comfort after watching friends and loved ones turn before their eyes.
“How are you feeling, my friend?” Hamish asked after they passed a particularly grisly scene, likely the start of the attack.
“I…don’t know,” Selene whispered, “I don’t think I’ve ever…seen anything like this.”
“I know the feeling,” Hamish said, face grim, “Brings me great sorrow, seeing this. Once I begin channelling, I will lessen pain. It will not go away, but it will protect them until the hour of grief arrives.”
Selene had no idea what that meant, so she simply nodded.
It was not long before they arrived at the courtyard. In the center stood stacked logs and kindling for the bonfire. Everything was ready.
Despite the gravity of this moment, there was no ceremony in this circumstance, nor was there any dramatic weight to Hamish’s actions.
He simply approached the center, struck his match and set the bonfire ablaze. As the fire burned bright, he grabbed a handful of the powdered incense from a pouch on his belt and tossed it into the inferno. The square filled with the strange scent of the incense as Hamish sat himself cross-legged before it.
Almost immediately, the mood shifted, as if the fire itself began to fill the chest of everyone in the square. It was hot, warming her entire body in spite of the morning chill. Her mood lifted, and an inner strength grew that Selene did not know existed within her.
As the fire grew and burned in all the people in the courtyard, the people around them surged into movement. Running around the field in order to prepare for the coming assault at their stations.
Selene swallowed sharply, knowing she too would soon need to depart to face this threat.
“Go, my friend,” Hamish said through gritted teeth, while he spoke he turned so his gaze met Selene’s, “And be safe…”
Selene, likely from the fire burning in her chest, grinned, “Of course, I’ll see you again after this is all over.”
Hamish nodded, but did not say another word, focusing on his channelling.
So that this fire would not go out.