Ethe’Loriel came ever closer, as the sky filled with ash and the smell of burning wood mixed with that of the forest creatures trapped in the flames. The heat dried the ground, but Aerie insisted we try and apply some dirt camouflage. We sprinted away from the cabin, an obvious landmark from the air.
Ethe’Loriel circled it twice before engulfing it in another ball of flame from her hand. Then she came in to land next to it, the ground still smouldering beneath her feet. She gave off a red glow from her armour, the product of some kind of magic spell. We ran, ducking from tree to tree.
I stopped behind a tree and glanced back to see our pursuer muttering a new incantation. The arrow appeared in her free hand again, and spun. I shouted out to Hodrick and Aerie to run, and we fled as quickly as we could. Seconds later, the tree I’d been taking cover behind burst into flames as it was hit with a bolt of fire. Ethe’Loriel stalked calmly through the flames, whose tongues flicked at her with no effect.
“Come out and be cleansed, vermin. I’ll give you a nice quick death; fire can be so painful,” she called out, still with her high, singsong elvish voice which seemed to promise sweets and candy even as it delivered vile messages of death. Even out of breath and with lungs full of fire and ash, we ran.
“The grotto’s just ahead!” called Aerie, leading Hodrick and I onward. I saw it: a tiny little cave in the ridge with a pool of water. Behind, another explosion boomed and Ethe’Loriel offered another taunt to the impure.
“Can’t she just follow us?” I asked, puffing with effort.
“She can’t swim in that armour. Nor can she speak to cast spells underwater.” replied Aerie, motioning us into the pool. The cavern was dank and small, but the pond seemed to stretch further underground, perhaps part of a natural reservoir.
I ran in and dived headfirst. The water was freezing cold and soaked my clothes instantly, but after the heat of the forest fires, I didn’t care. I swum down, following the rock walls and holding my breath. The tunnel curved back upwards, and soon I surfaced in a tiny alcove, hardly big enough to hold my head above the water. The rock was old and hard around me. I took a series of deep breaths, trying to recover after the rapid exertion. Thirty seconds later, Hodrick and Aerie surfaced beside me, Hodrick without his armour and Aerie washed clean of her trademark mud.
Above us, a little inscription of runes glowed green, offering the only light. I squinted, but couldn’t make out the letters.
“It’s old magic, from before Old Nargal rose and fell,” suggested Aerie. “It feels like a charm of protection to me.”
The freezing water abruptly warmed, but still to no more than lukewarm. “Ethe’Loriel must be trying her worst out there,” I offered.
The water shot through with warmth again twice before it settled, the runes flashing with light each time. We treaded water, floating there in that little cavern, waiting for the worst. Aerie reached out her hands to Hodrick and I beneath the water. Her hand was cold, but comforting. I reached my other hand toward Hodrick, who took it too.
We held each other, three Brothers together in the cold and dark grotto, hiding from the greatest force I’ve ever known, a force of pure evil.
“United we stand,” said Hodrick. “Or, float, really, but that isn’t half as poetic.”
“United we stand,” echoed Aerie.
“United we stand,” I finished.
The runes flashed so brightly that they briefly blinded me, green light seeming to flash around the little cavern.
“Did you see that?” I asked. Aerie and Hodrick nodded their heads in synchronicity.
The lights flashed again, as if answering my question. I felt suffused by light that I couldn’t see, but nonetheless felt within me. Once, at church, I’d felt a touch of this. But this was much rawer, unrefined, like the difference between sunlight and that filtered through clouds. I felt safe, somehow, despite the monster at our doorstep. My Brothers were with me and I knew that the light liked that.
“There’s older and finer magic than the vulgar displays of power that bitch likes to use.” suggested Aerie. “We’re going to be alright.”
So we shivered together in the water, sharing the same dank pocket of air, as Madam Genocide tried to pierce the veil of the old gods. But we were together, and that was what mattered.
Eventually, the demon left in search of easier prey, and we clustered around the fire which still burned the remnants of Aerie’s cabin as clouds rolled in at dawn, bringing rain and a fresh day. It would put out the fires, but we’d have to work at repairing the damage.