Author’s Note: Rysthael is the name of Earth as given by the Seosten.
Several thousand years ago
Two figures stood atop a hill overlooking an ancient city. To its inhabitants, it was the pinnacle of civilization, a gleaming center of prosperity and protection. The magic along its walls protected its people from the wandering beasts and brigands who plagued the surrounding lands and ensured an area of safety for the populace to live and grow. Its standing guard were armed with swords and spears of iron, as well as heavy shields. All of them heavily enchanted to cut deeper, to defend against more, and to return to a hand when thrown. They used bows enchanted with fire and ice, the horns attached to their belts capable of producing a single blast of sound that could blow through great stone boulders before their magic would be expended. They were some of the strongest, most capable of any people who lived upon this planet.
The two figures who stood upon that hill, gazing down at the walled city, might as well have been twenty-first century scientists observing a village made of mud, stone, and sticks.
“There it is,” the man casually announced while adjusting the fit of his leather tunic and hood. He smiled, staring down at the city with open and eager curiosity before turning a glance toward the woman who stood beside him. “You see, Sariel, I told you we’d make it before nightfall.”
“You said we’d make it before nightfall yesterday, Lucifer,” Sariel reminded the man idly. “As I recall, your actual words were, ‘Rysthaelean maps show it only a fingernail width away, let’s walk.’” Despite her teasing, she felt no particular annoyance. Spending a couple of days walking across this land with the man who was a brother to her was a vacation from the myriad other tasks and seemingly endless array of problems that continued to pop up since they arrived on this world. Truthfully, she was all but certain that Lucifer knew exactly how long this would take and had been giving her plausible deniability about the mini-vacation he had brought her on.
At the moment, the man simply shrugged. “Yes, well, I may have said it yesterday, but I’m quite certain I wasn’t specific about the day.” With a wink, he cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’re here. Time to go down and see what we can find out about these Rysthaeleans. But ahh…” He glanced to her with a small smirk. “What do you say we make a real challenge of it, hmm?”
Flipping her own hood down to reveal her tightly braided blonde hair, Sariel replied without looking at him. “What exactly do you mean by a challenge, oh troublemaker of mine?”
Grinning when she took the bait, Lucifer tapped a finger against his forehead. “Oh, I was just thinking it might be fun to see how much we can manage down here without resorting to cheating. No possession, no magic, nothing like that. Put some actual effort into this whole scouting thing. Talk to people, see what we can pull out of the populace the old-fashioned way.”
Before Sariel could respond to that, they both became aware of the approach of several men on the back of the four-legged animals the locals referred to as horses according to the research they had already done. The men on their horses were coming at a pace much faster than ordinary animals of that type, a glowing mystical fog around their feet lending more proof to the idea that they were magically enhanced with a sort of speed boost. The men were certainly in a rush to get to the pair, though their weapons remained sheathed, at least for the moment.
Glancing back to the distant city wall, Sariel noted several figures armed with bows that were drawn and ready. The archers appeared to be members of the bird-like Lavinsi people. Which made sense, given their remarkable vision capabilities. Marksmanship in general was one of their fortes. Which explained why the people approaching felt comfortable doing so without swords in hand despite not knowing who or what she and Lucifer were. They trusted the archers at their back to cover them in case of any threat, at least long enough to draw their weapons.
“I suppose you mean for us to handle this without magic or other tricks as well?” she asked in a soft, private tone as her gaze went back to the approaching horsemen without making any sudden moves that might spook the archers. They could handle it if things went sideways here, of course. But getting into a fight would put a real damper on the idea of pulling this off subtly.
“What fun would it be otherwise?” her companion drawled before adding, “First one to have to pull magic or possession before this is over has to do the other’s trench duty for a month.”
Trench duty, in this case, referred to the act of performing the dozens of mind-numbing simple spells required to, among other things, keep their landed ship safely hidden and prepare it in case of attack. There were wards that had to be put up, countermeasures against spies and infiltration, even spells for safely luring in food for the crew, transferring fresh water, and eliminating waste. Everyone took turns contributing their own magic to keep such spells running properly, and doing so was referred to as trench duty because of how boring and repetitive it was. Not to mention the fact that, while boring, it still drained you. No one particularly enjoyed trench duty, least of all a couple like Lucifer and Sariel, who build their lives around creating and experimenting with new magic. Wasting their energy performing such incredibly mundane, though necessary spells was annoying enough that they often made these kind of bets. In truth, what they were actually doing was sharing the load so that one of them did trench duty while the other could perform all the spell research that they wanted. But they hid it behind these wagers.
“Deal,” Sariel replied. There were a few in-depth tests she wanted to do with some of the flora and fauna of this world. From the little research she’d read, the native Rysthaeleans’ remarkable ability to form a genetic bond with other species only worked with creatures from other worlds. How and why a species would develop that kind of power and have it be utterly useless on creatures that were actually native to their world was… curious. She had some ideas, but they would require intense magical research. Particularly with Cahethal insisting on claiming the Olympus’s main labs for her own work throughout the foreseeable future. Though she had mellowed on the twins over the past decades that they had been shipmates and even allowed their assistance, the woman still preferred to work on her own, particularly with this sort of thing. She only truly trusted herself when performing research this important. Sariel understood that.
“Ho there!” The man on the lead horse called, riding his mount to within about twenty feet before drawing it up to a halt. The other two came up slightly behind him. While the man in front appeared to be Rysthaelean, the two behind him were a short, blue-skinned and four-eyed Pisendej, and a red-furred, long-eared Reusfeil. The two non-natives watched Sariel and Lucifer intently, hands on the weapons still sheathed at their sides while the horses whinnied softly.
“Apologies for the tense greeting if you come in peace,” the Rysthaelean informed them in a voice that was casual, but could easily turn hard. “Things are just a bit tense around here lately, and we’d like to know where you come from. As well as your business at Ephesus if you don’t mind.” It was clear that, despite the polite way he spoke, this was not a simple request to be denied.
Lucifer, as usual, took the lead in the conversation. “Hail and good evening, sirs. Our deepest apologies for disturbing the peace of your city. I am called Delian and this is my sister, Diana. We’ve left the lands of our parents far behind and have been searching for a quiet, peaceful place where we might live. We carry no trouble at our backs and mean you and yours no harm.”
“I am Hector,” the Rysthaelean informed them. “And I’m afraid if you’ve come for peace, your journey has led you astray. You’ll find little peace in these lands, less if you keep going this way.”
“I don’t understand,” Sariel chose to put in then. “Your city seems quite well-defended, and I see no armies camped outside its walls. Is there truly a threat to it that you cannot put down?”
“An army, no,” Hector confirmed. “One of those we could fight in a true battle and simply end the situation once and for all. No, the trouble in this case comes from the one called Faelt, a brigand, murderer, and king of bandits. He is a bad sort, an evil man. If you wish to avoid drawing the attention of him and his group, I would suggest you make a wide path around this place and push on as far as possible before night. It would be in your best interest to stay safe.”
Lucifer’s head shook. “What threat could a small band of murderers pose to a whole city? Surely your walls are warded against unwanted intrusion by such beings, and you have a night watch.”
Instead of Hector, it was the Reusfeil who spoke, his tone one of long-stressed anger and helplessness, the tone of a man who was far beyond tired of seeing those under his protection die while he remained frustratingly incapable of protecting them. “We have all of those and more. They have always protected our city in the past. Now they do not, and we know not why.”
“They are travelers and strangers, Sanja,” Hector reminded his companion sharply. “They are not here for our internal issues. For all we know, they were sent by the bandit king himself.” To the twins, he added a softer, “Apologies for any insult. We simply don’t know you, I’m afraid. We have problems enough without inviting strangers into our confidence. And I’m quite certain you have your own lives to proceed with. As I said, it would be to your benefit to push on while–”
Before the man could continue any further with that, something exploded out of the ground directly near the feet of his mount. The creature’s head was split in two almost instantly. In that split second, Sariel triggered her boost. She saw the weapon that had burst out of the ground. It looked like a metal rocket of some kind. Having been launched vertically out of the ground, the bladed end ripped through the head of the mount and hovered there directly in front of Hector’s face. All around the cylindrical body, a half-dozen small arrows snapped down into horizontal position and began to launch out in every direction. Two were heading for the man’s eyes.
But Sariel was quicker. A thought popped one of her daggers into one hand, and she gave a quick snap of her wrist to send the dagger straight into the rocket-like weapon. As it struck home, the spell on the dagger incinerated the weapon and most of the arrows attached to it. The single one that managed to fire was thrown off course, barely grazing the man’s ear as it shot past to hit the dirt nearby.
Of course, his mount was still dead, and the man fell. But the Reusfeil called Sanja was already off his own mount and there to catch him before he could hit the ground, his figure a blur of motion. Meanwhile, the small, blue-skinned Pisendej was standing on his mount, a bow in hand and arrow nocked as he scanned the area around them wildly while making a hissing sound.
Catching himself against Sanja, Hector stumbled before quickly spinning. He drew a sword from its sheath and blurted a command word. As he did so, the sword began to glow with a faint green light, and a bubble-shaped forcefield appeared, “That was dwellershot, are there more?!”
“Checking.” The terse response came from Sanja, as he took a glass ball from the leather pouch at his side. Clutching it in one hand, the Reusfeil murmured a command word. As he did, a holographic image of the land around them appeared. He studied it briefly before reporting, “No more. I see the path it took. From up there on that ridge. Looks like they took off.”
“Then we’ll track them back to their base and see about ending this,” Hector ordered. Despite his words, the man took a knee beside his dead mount. His hand moved to touch the body, and he murmured what appeared to be a prayer of some kind. The pain in his voice, and the way his hand shook, made it clear just how much the animal had meant to him. He rubbed its motionless side with a heavy sigh before his head turned. He was staring, first at the incinerated pieces of the rocket and the arrow that had grazed his ear, then to the woman standing in front of him. When he spoke, his voice was strained. “My… ahhh, my thanks to you, Miss Diana. Goddess be praised, you were blessed with great reflexes, it seems.” As he spoke, the man reached down for the gleaming metal dagger on the ground. “But if I may ask, where did you acquire such a weapon?” He carefully picked it up with two fingers, studying the thing briefly. “You have an item of the gods, they are far too rare for simple travelers. And your skill with it…” He trailed off before turning to extend the dagger to her. “I have many questions, but you have saved my life, so I will only ask rather than demand.”
Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel before replying, “We are travelers, as we said. Perhaps not entirely simple, but we mean no harm to your city. Perhaps we can help with this bandit problem of yours, and you can help us. We’re very new to this land and we’d like to learn more.”
There was a brief pause as Hector considered before sighing with a nod. “As much as I loathe to say it, we may need the help of outsiders like yourselves to settle this without more deaths.”
“In that case,” Sariel announced while turning to look at the distant ridge that had been pointed out, “it sounds like we’re going that way. On the way, you should tell us about this bandit king and why he is still a threat to your city despite your walls, magical wards, and guards.”
Hector agreed, before starting to walk alongside the twins. The other two guards brought up the rear on their mounts, keeping a careful eye out. On the way, the Rysthaelean explained that this so-called bandit king, Faelt, had actually been the second-in-command of the city guard at one point. He was found in the midst of raping the leader of the city’s daughter, and was set to be executed. Instead, the man escaped and united the bandits of the surrounding areas beneath his rule. He had apparently been using some sort of secret way of bypassing the city wards, as well as his knowledge of guard routines and perhaps even traitors within the guard itself, to conduct a campaign of terror against the city. He and his people came and went as they pleased, killing a few here and there before they could be found, then retreating. None were safe. He targeted the young and old, rich and poor alike.
“He is evil beyond any you may have seen before,” Hector warned them. “And he will not fall easily. Be ready, for this coming battle may be the end for us all.”
The body of Faelt lay at Sariel’s feet, his casually discarded corpse bleeding across his own makeshift throne room while she stood over him, liberated bow in one hand. Two dozen bandit troops, most felled by herself and Lucifer, were scattered elsewhere through the room, with even more filling the tunnels of this cavern complex.
Standing at one end of the room, staring in open wonderment, were Hector, Sanja, and the Pisendej, whose name they had come to find out was Nep. All three had dropped their weapons, their mouths agape.
“You… the way you fight,” Hector breathed. “You are truly blessed by the goddess.” His gaze took in Sariel as he murmured, “Her hand guides your bow, that is certain. Never have I seen such skill, such…” He swallowed hard, his voice dropping to a whisper, “…grace.”
Lucifer took a step that way, his tone curious. “What do you know of your goddess?”
Hector answered promptly. “She is the goddess called Artemis, Lady of the Amazons, queen of their hunters and protector of this land.”
“She protects your people,” Lucifer confirmed, easily jumping on that without a second thought. “And this Faelt, he is the greatest threat your city has ever known.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he corrected, “…I mean, was. He was the greatest threat. One that only your guardian could put down, with you all as witness to her act of protection.”
“Delian,” Sariel spoke warningly, using the name Lucifer had given for himself as she realized where he was going with this.
“No, ‘Diana,’” Lucifer replied with a shake of his head. “They have suffered too much. The people of this land have lived in fear for long enough. They deserve to know that their goddess truly stands with them, that she is here when they need her.”
He turned to the assembled trio, all of whom had already fallen to their knees while staring in awed reverence. “Let it be known that the goddess has not forsaken you, that she has returned in your time of need. Tell your people that the cloud of darkness that had settled above your lands has been pierced by her arrows.
“Tell them that the Lady Artemis is amongst them.”