The Ajoiner Realm
Warren stood on the battle-scarred streets of Fortitude, absentmindedly wiping blood from his sword. He stared at the blade in his hand, the pommel no longer glimmered, the leather grip worn and stained, the blade scratched by war. How many more years would he spend like this? He had little time to rest before a shriek echoed a few streets away. His eyes flicked open, and his thick muscles coiled. The western district again.
Warren charged through the alleyway toward the commotion. Following a wet trail of blood and broken cobblestone, he tracked the outburst to a decrepit home near the edge of the city. Half a plank of oak swung from the hinges of the obliterated door. Drawing his blade, Warren shouldered into the house.
Four creatures in the center of the room stood over a dead woman. They were the same type of beasts he had slayed in the streets only minutes earlier: Drevics. The monstrosities had four arms and two sets of dark horns protruding from their eye sockets. They were nearly translucent, exposing dark veins along their bodies, loosely protected by barbaric black armor. Their arms and lipless mouths were perpetually stained with blood.
"Hey!" Warren shouted. They swiveled, licking their teeth.
The closest launched itself at him using its four arms, but Warren’s blade cleaved through both the hardened armor and flesh of the creature with little effort. Shrieking, the others swarmed Warren; their veins visibly pulsed through their translucent flesh.
With three more strokes, Warren felled the beasts as easily as if they had been dandelions. He sliced his blade through the air, sending a chunk of black ooze flying before properly cleaning the blade and sheathing it.
Warren knelt next to the dead woman and sighed with frustration. Her dark brown eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling, her blood staining the burlap rug. Out of respect for the dead, he closed her eyelids. Emptiness tore him apart. What am I fighting for? Against an innumerable host of evil what could one man do?
A rustling came from behind a door, Warren’s steel blue eyes flew open. In one swift motion, he drew his blade and rose to his feet, his steel armor rubbing together as he advanced closer to the closet. The thin door hung on worn iron hinges. He flung it open, ready to kill whatever came out.
A child, no more than six years old, cowered in the back corner of the pantry, squealing in fear. "Please don't hurt me," she said in a trembling voice.
Her eyes and hair were as dark as the dead woman’s. Her daughter. Sheathing his blade, he crouched in front of her. At least he’d saved one life, but she would grow up without a mother now because he didn’t kill the Drevics in time. Warren cleared his throat.
"What's your name?"
"I-i-sabel," the girl stammered between sniffles.
"My name is Warren."
Her eyes hadn’t shifted from the ground since he’d opened the door. Warren noticed the toy in her hand.
“That’s a pretty doll.”
“Daddy got her for me.” She looked at the doll for a moment before holding it out for him to see. Warren raised his eyebrows, surprised by her trust. She pushed it closer to him, waiting for him to take it. He couldn’t resist Isabel’s show of trust, and he held the doll.
The pink gown slid between his fingers like rose petals. He studied the doll's porcelain face. It must have come from the city Methril. He softly smiled, even with war enclosing the continent, someone had found a way to make a little girl happy.
"Where is your father, Isabel?" Warren handed the doll back.
Isabel stared at the doll, a slight pout pushed her lower lip upward. "Mommy says he's gone. Do you know when he’s comin’ back?"
It was Warren’s turn to look at the ground. Another war orphan.
"Is Mommy sleepin'?" she asked, peeking around him.
He shifted so she couldn't see, mouth parted unable to think of what to say. He was relieved the girl hadn't seen what happened, but he still needed to deal with her no longer having a home. What was he supposed to tell her? She obviously didn’t understand the concept of death. Warren rubbed the back of his neck trying to decide what to tell the girl.
He hesitated. Her round eyes gleamed at him, and for the first time in a long time he saw hope. Warren blinked. Had he really forgotten what it looked like to hope? He had. How did he forget something so important? That’s why I’m fighting. As long as someone still has hope, even if Isabel was the only one who dared to hope, he had to fight.
His hand dropped to his side. "Yes, your mommy's sleeping."
"Oh," she said as Warren stood up.
"Don't leave me!" The girl squealed, attaching herself to Warren's leg.
Warren knew he couldn't leave her, but he couldn't have her slowing him down either. It wasn't that he didn't care, but more people would end up like Isabel’s mother if he was distracted.
From the open doorway, Warren saw the pink streaks of sunset deepening to purples as the sun descended below the horizon. Looking again at the body on the ground, Warren made his choice and lifted the girl to his chest. He would take her to the one safe place left. He’d return to bury her mother in the morning, if the Kellnox didn't find her first. He shuddered thinking of the twisted forms that used to be people.
As he marched to the last standing tower near the center of the city, Warren passed several dead Drevics. Black blood drained down the cracks in the cobblestone like a network of tiny polluted canals. Isabel whimpered at the sight of the monsters and hung on tighter to Warren's neck. He patted her on the back in a feeble attempt to reassure her. Guilt pricked his heart, She shouldn’t have lost her parents at such a young age. Warren should have been faster. Warren pushed the thought from his mind, he couldn’t bring them back.
The last of his city guards had died in a particularly gruesome skirmish a month ago. Every noble house in the city evacuated not long after, taking all their food, weapons, and soldiers with them, abandoning their manors to the civilians who couldn’t escape on fine carriages. Depression soaked through Warren’s soul. He had tried to convince the nobles to stay. Every city on the continent was either destroyed or on the verge of collapse. Some of the nobles planned to sail across the sea. Warren doubted that they made it to the coastline. Leaving was foolish; their best chance of survival was in the city, but no amount of pleading could change their minds. Warren was Fortitude’s last defender and he was failing.
Warren tugged open the dense oak door of the tower, and kicked it shut behind him before he started up the long, spiral staircase to the highest room. With only enough space for a bed, table, and a dusty cabinet, civilians sleeping here had never really been an option.
"You'll be safe here." Warren set the girl down.
Warren smiled wanly. “Me too.”
He returned to the base of the tower to find the door open. His heart thudded. Something rustled in the storage room. His gauntleted hand closed around the grip of his sword and he stepped into the storage room. A disheveled figure bent over a food barrel, spilling grain on the ground as he ate.
Warren cleared his throat.
The man nearly jumped out of his skin, which wouldn’t have been hard considering how loosely it hung from his body.
“You need to leave,” Warren said.
“Hungry,” he said, voice raspy.
“You have your rations.”
The man stared at the ground.
“You can take what’s in your hands with you.” It wasn’t much and the man had already drooled on it anyway.
The man lifted his head then slipped past Warren and back into the streets.
Warren locked the door and scooped some grain into a couple bowls for him and Isabel then returned to the top of the tower where Isabel sat on the edge of the bed swinging her feet above the ground and playing with her doll. She giggled as she looked at Warren, but didn’t explain what she found humorous. Warren took a pitcher of water from the table and poured a small amount into each bowl. He mixed the grain and water, making a paste. It didn’t have much taste, but it would fill their bellies.