[Alright, here's chapter 1. Still no Backer; I'm planning to introduce him in chapter 3.]
The day started off like any other Thursday, with the minor exception that Rianna now carried the Codex along with her supplies in the pack on her back. From nine to ten she practiced her accuracy. A firing range was set up near the guard house, with painted stacks of hay as targets. Marks were lain out on the ground at ten, twenty, and thirty meters.
Rianna was experienced enough that she never bothered with the ten meter mark anymore. She started out at the twenty meter mark, and switched between firing out her quiver as rapidly as possible and striving for pinpoint accuracy with slow, measured shots. After half an hour, she moved back to the thirty meter mark and repeated this routine.
Her daily practice served two purposes. One, it kept her skills intact, even if she didn't need them throughout the rest of the day. This was the case for most days; Porrean attacks were exceedingly rare. As she could recall, there had only been two actual conflicts throughout her entire career in the militia. Thursdays were a different matter, however. Every Thursday it was her duty to go out to the nearby forest and hunt game for common consumption, so she always found use of her skills then.
The other reason for her practice was so that she could keep an eye on the state of her bow. No good bow could be made primarily from anything other than wood, it was the only material that could suitably flex and recover its shape. Some stronger archers would imbed a strip of steel in their bows to allow them to put more energy into the arrow, but Rianna was far from strong enough for this to benefit her. The problem with a wooden bow was that it always wore down given time. If an archer wasn't mindful and didn't catch small imperfections, her bow could snap at an inopportune moment.
Satisfied with her own and her bow's performance, Rianna left for the south gate. Her ultimate destination was to the north, but Torin was stationed at the south gate, so she always left that way. After their familiar greetings and a brief kiss, Rianna left and circled around to the forest. She still hadn't told Torin about the Codex; she feared that he'd think she was being silly. Nothing new had happened in the day since she'd gotten it, but she figured she'd hang on to it for at least a week before she considered ditching it. She even toyed with the notion of keeping it to use as a diary if her vision didn't pan out.
Game was scarce this day, so much so that Rianna had to resort to following what appeared to be the freshest tracks: those of a deer, heading further north. Aside from the tracks, Rianna hadn't seen any sign of life, and she was starting to feel unsettled. As she progressed, she started to notice a faint, white glow from ahead, along with faint, pulsing vibrations in the ground. Curiosity overwhelming her, Rianna ran forward until she could see what was progressing.
A fountain of white energy appeared to be sprouting out of the ground ahead. Surrounding it was what appeared to be every animal that resided in the forest, seeming to drink the energy. She would have described the sight as heavenly had the animals not been morphing into grotesque beasts as they drank. As she watched in horror, a hornet grew to the size of a deer, a rabbit's front teeth grew to a length that would have been humorous had its body not grown to match, and a hawk shed its corporeal body and turned into what appeared to be a creature of pure light.
Rianna stumbled back. [i]I have to raise the alarm at Larin,[/i] she resolved. Before she turned, she caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a magnificent, if fearsome, dragon rising from the center of the fountain. This sight caused her to pause a moment too long, as the overgrown hornet caught sight of her. She dove into the cover of the woods and ran for her life.
It was little use; the hornet easily outpaced her and was unhindered by the rough terrain of the forest floor. As she heard it nearing, Rianna drew her bow and cocked an arrow. She leapt and spun around, loosing her arrow in mid-air. Her intuition was good enough that the arrow shot through the hornet's left wing, causing it to fall out of the air. She breathed a sigh of relief as she readied another arrow to deliver the coup de grace.
The arrow thudded into the ground where the hornet had been. Somehow, its wing had healed, and it had risen back into the air. Not sparing a moment to ponder this turn of events, Rianna readied another arrow, aimed straight at the hornet's head. The hornet was once more shot out of the air, but still it writhed on the ground as the arrow was expelled and its wound started to heal. Rianna drew her sidearm, a short sword, and rushed the hornet. She severed both of its wings and its head, and then crushed its head beneath her boots.
- * *
Rianna didn't waste a moment in returning to Larin. "Sound the alarm!" she yelled as she approached the north gate. "Monsters to attack the village!" She rushed past the gate and to the guardhouse.
"Ria, what is it?" asked Marton, the captain of Larin's militia.
"Monsters --" Rianna panted, "from the forest -- animals being transformed."
"Alright, man the northeast watchtower," he replied. "I'll rally the troops."
Rianna reached the tower before the monsters came within view, so she had a few moments to catch her breath as she watched the troops assemble below. Larin's militia consisted of twenty-seven fighters in addition to Marton. Twenty-two of these were melee fighters (one of whom was Torin), four were archers, and one was a wizard. All of them assembled for the coming battle. The other archers climbed to the other three northern towers, and the melee fighters amassed just outside the northern gate, while Marton and Ziro, the wizard, stayed just behind the gate.
The monsters came into view. Rianna estimated that there were at least fifty approaching. It was a significant number, but not as much as there could have been. Apparently, not every animal had been mutated. Marton signaled the archers to fire as soon as they had clear shots. Rianna readied an arrow and aimed it in the direction of the mass of beasts. As they approached, it became clear that the flying monsters -- the overgrown insects and a few mutated birds -- were pulling ahead.
Rianna held off until she could get a clear shot at the head of a giant bee. By the time her arrow had landed, she had already shot three more arrows at different insects. The other archers had started firing earlier, but their shots had scored only glancing blows, and the insects were quickly recovering. [i]Damnit![/i] Rianna realized. [i]I forgot to warn Captain Marton about the healing I saw![/i]
"Captain!" she shouted. "They're recovering from our shots!"
"Keep firing!" he shouted back. "Knock 'em out of the air! Ziro, roast 'em!"
As Rianna and the other archers worked to shoot them down, Ziro manifested a wave of fire which he launched at the approaching bugs. Few survived the dual onslaught, but the second wave of monsters -- primarily mutated rabbits, deer, and boars -- was coming within range.
"First and second lines, engage the enemy!" Marton ordered. "Third line, clean up the bugs! Back line, hold your ground!"
The front twelve troops rushed out to meet the enemy head-on. These beasts proved to significantly tougher to kill than the insects; they could take more damage before dying and healed back whatever didn't kill them. Only Ziro's magic seemed to have any lasting effect. Rianna's arrows seemed to deal no appreciable damage, and the troops had managed to kill only a handful of the monsters while their own injuries were mounting.
When one of the soldiers -- a man named Jaro -- fell to the assault, Marton ordered, "Fall back to the gate! Archers, Ziro, cover them!" Two more soldiers fell in the retreat, but Rianna managed to take out a mutated rabbit with an arrow to its eye. She paused to affirm that Torin was in good shape, but was shocked by a scream from the watchtower to her left.
The archer in that tower was struggling futilely against a hawk made of light. His short sword passed through it harmlessly, while the ravaged him with its talons. "Ziro, get the bird!" Rianna called out. Before he could act, the bird managed to knock the archer off his tower and dove straight through the chest of the archer in the easternmost tower.
As Ziro managed to blast the bird with shadow energy, Rianna turned her focus to the battle raging at the gate. It was going badly, fewer than a dozen were still standing and they were vastly outnumbered by the beasts. A roar in the distance alerted her that it was about to get even worse.
"Dragon approaching!" shouted the only other remaining archer as the dragon came into view. It had a body over a meter wide and three times as long, with a spiked tail matching its length. It was flying in at a fearsome speed, with a wingspan of over six meters. Its body was mostly white, with red highlights on its limbs and wings.
As the dragon approached, Rianna and her fellow archer loosed a salvo of arrows which bounced harmlessly off the dragon's thick scales, accomplishing nothing other than catching its attention. It reached the wall, hovered, opened its mouth and shot out a spray of what appeared to be solid light. The blast was unfocused, but it knocked Rianna back into the rail and ignited her tower on fire.
Rianna scrambled back down the ladder, jumping off halfway. She ran to the gate in time to see the dragon touch down. Most of the beasts had scattered, themselves frightened off by the dragon's assault. Of the soldiers, only Marton, Ziro, and Torin were still standing. Marton had drawn his claymore, and was facing off against the dragon alongside Torin, while Ziro was taking care of the few remaining beasts.
Marton swung his blade at the dragon, his blow powerful enough to penetrate the dragon's hide. It was not enough, however, to stop the dragon from striking back, its claw swiping out and knocking Marton to the ground. Torin gritted his teeth and charged, his longsword set to drive into the dragon's wound. The dragon turned its head at his approached, and nailed him with the full force of its breath attack.
"NO!" Rianna screamed. "Torin!" She ran to his side, but was knocked back by an explosion of light from his body.
The afterimage of the flash blurred her vision and she started to lose consciousness, but she could make out what appeared to be another dragon taking shape at the source of the explosion. Both dragons seemed to freeze, staring each other down, until the original was hit by a fierce blast of shadow energy.
[i]Ziro![/i] The dragon writhed in agony as Ziro hit it with blast after blast of magic. The second let a roar of fury and took wing. As her consciousness left her, Rianna turned to where Torin's body had been. It had disappeared, most likely disintegrated from the blast that marked the arrival of the second dragon. [i]He's gone?[/i] she realized as she passed into oblivion.