Chapter One : Unexpected Meeting
Nafia sighed softly as she finished her lunch and drained her canteen, watching Yewbell's small town bustle from her perch on a fence post. Adults went in and out of the item shop, teenagers gossiped in the street, and children dueled with wooden swords playing Humans and Deimos. It had been a peaceful week. The afternoon sun was warm on her back while a light breeze cooled her face and told of the coming of autumn. Hopping down, she adjusted her sword, sheathed at her side, and headed for the bar and inn, which served the additional purpose of base for the Defense Corps. Perhaps they would have something for her to do, though she expected they'd send her to rescue a cat out of a tree. She suspected old Mrs. Haverly let Biscuit get up there on purpose just to give her something to do.
That thought was brushed aside when she spotted something moving in the distance. Jogging to the gate, she squinted her eyes and made out the form of Banjo limping in the direction of Yewbell.
Banjo had long been her friend; they had grown up together, but they didn't spend much time together anymore. She had opted to join the Defense Corps, following her late father's footsteps, and he had taken an apprenticeship at the refinery, converting raw spirit stones from the mine into a viable energy source for the people of Yewbell. Still, despite having grown apart, she was fond of the man.
"Someone, help!" Nafia called before bolting forward, closing the distance between them and taking up post under one of his arms to aid him. The poor man was breathless and clearly terrified. Blood ran down his leg from a nasty gash, soaking into his boot.
"N-Nafia! D-Deimos!" he struggled to form the words.
Deimos…the creatures were little more than a step up from monsters, and thus all the more dangerous. While monsters attacked indiscriminately, Deimos were intelligent and held a deep hatred for humans. Humans and Deimos lived in a tenuous peace at the moment. While neither group could stand the other, all-out war would shed enough blood on both sides that they understood the need for a sort of grudging agreement to stay on their own sides. The continent was divided between the two, but both knew that at any moment the balance of power could shift, and when that happened only one side would emerge victorious.
As they reached the gate, a small crowd had gathered to witness the excitement, so she lowered Banjo onto a sizable rock to rest rather than try to push through to the inn.
"Take a deep breath and explain." Nafia instructed patiently as she motioned for the local medic to tend her childhood friend's wound.
"I was helping out in the spirit stone mine at Plumb Canyon, when the…the Deimos attacked!"
The people gathered began to panic amongst themselves. Nafia beckoned for silence and motioned for the assistant refiner to continue.
"I barely made it out and came to get help. I…I don't know how long they can last!"
"Do you know what kind of Deimos and how many?"
Banjo shook his head, a wash of guilt and other emotions fleeting over his face.
"I…It all happened so fast. They flew in out of nowhere! There might have been five…ten…I don't know!"
Nafia put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he took several deep breaths, regaining his composure. She looked up at the people surrounding them. The civilians turned anxiously to Sir Dorian, the commander of the Defense Corps. Sir Dorian was a tall man with dark brown hair cropped short in militaristic style. Equipped in full armor, he was the image of strength.
"This is the work of the Drakyr, a reptilian tribe of Deimos that make their home in the northeast." Drawing himself to his full height, he projected a confident air, putting the people at ease. He addressed the members of the Defense Corps gathered. "We have no time to lose! The Deimos must be stopped! To arms! We set off for Plumb Canyon immediately!" The men rushed to prepare themselves. They were highly trained to be ready within a single minute for the defense of their small country.
Nafia stood and helped Banjo up, supporting him over to the inn where he could rest more easily.
"Thanks, Nafia…" the refiner smiled gratefully before worry crossed his features. "Do…do you think I did the right thing…coming to get help instead of staying and fighting?"
Nafia put her hand over his and waited for him to make eye contact. "If no one came for help, no help would come, Banjo. You focus on getting better, leave the rest to us." She patted his hand lightly and left the inn, strapping on a shoulder guard as she joined the Defense Corps, assembled just inside the gate, the closest thing to a town square Yewbell had. Sir Dorian motioned her over to where he had some of the younger less experienced members gathered.
"I want you all to stay here and defend Yewbell. If we fail, this is the last line of defense. I'm counting on you all to do your best."
The others nodded curtly, relief flickering over their faces. Nafia, on the other hand, was enfused.
"Sir Dorian, I want to defend Yewbell! How can you ask me to stay here? I'm the best swordsman in the Defense Corps, you can't deny it. My skills are invaluable!"
"Lady Nafia, I'm not asking, I'm telling. I know you want to prove yourself, but you are still a lady, and it is our job ultimately to protect you, not the other way around. How could I call myself a knight and send my princess into danger? Your mother would never forgive me if anything happened to you."
Back in Nidellia's glory days, Nafia's family had been royalty. Though in the decline the monarchy had fallen, Nafia's line was still highly respected nobility and led relatively privileged lives, considering the size of Yewbell. Sir Dorian's ancestors were a long knighthood, sworn to protect the royal family, and though the monarchy no longer existed and the castle lay in ruins, Sir Dorian took that oath very seriously and had raised his son Lloyd to do the same.
"But-" Before she could argue her point, she was cut short.
"You are staying. End of discussion." He said firmly, motioning to the soldiers assembled and setting off, rushing to the aid of the miners of Plumb Canyon.
Nafia frowned, noticing one of the guys left behind had taken up post at the gate and would no doubt prevent her leaving that way. She would have to get creative. Turning on her heel, she headed for her house at the top of the small hill Yewbell occupied. The back gate which led out to the castle ruins was of course locked as always. Going inside, she glanced around for her mother. No trace. Sneaking across the room, she avoided the creaky floorboard and slipped into her mother's room, where she kept the gate key…and ran right into her mother.
Lady Sarah was a slip of a woman with an attitude ten times her size. She had faced every trial in her time headfirst, with a grace that few possessed. Her long hair was a mousey brown, barely visible through the thin veil-like material she wore about her head. Her eyes were emerald green, shining with her love of life.
"And what exactly are you doing, young lady?"
Nafia froze for a moment before pasting on an innocent smile. "Just getting the key to the gate." She shrugged nonchalantly.
Nafia praised the spirits that her mother hadn't yet heard of the commotion, glad for once that their home was as far from the front gate as possible. "I wanted to visit dad's grave."
She hoped her dad would forgive the lie, after all it was for a good cause. Lord Kallen had been a staunch defender of his people to his dying breath. He had passed away early the previous year of pneumonia, a difficult loss for them all. He had taught Nafia everything she knew about swordplay. Now he rested peacefully among the graves in the courtyard of the castle ruins. She'd visit him later, just to be on the safe side.
"Very well, then, but be careful! Chaos Forest is just beyond and monsters do occasionally creep over."
Nafia smiled. "I promise, I'll be safe. Besides, I can handle a suskle squirrel any day." She went to the shelf and snagged the key, then headed out, waving briefly before shutting the door behind her. Fully prepared to undertake this adventure now, she purposefully left the small town and crept through the castle ruins. There was little left of the structure. Half a pillar here, a pile of rocks there, a few sets of stairs. The place had been leveled to its foundation in a war long ago. Time had not been kind. Moss grew over the aging stones and weeds poked their ways up from cracks. To either side of the cleared path were plots of grass where Yewbell's dead were buried. She navigated her way through the remains of the grand old building and out what was left of its gate, into Chaos Forest, and then made a beeline for Plumb Canyon.
Windalf growled in frustration as he made his way towards Plumb Canyon. The wind rushed against his face as his wings beat the air harder. Moments ago his father had sent him after a group of the rowdier boys who were getting too close to human territory. Now he feared they had actually gone to human-occupied land. This was just the sort of incident that would upset the tentative peace between the two intelligent races of the world, though "intelligent" was stretching it a little as far as humans were concerned. Still, he preferred the small scraps between his own kind to full-scale war.
As he approached, he thought better of flying. If they hadn't come here, and he was spotted, he'd be the one in trouble. He landed quietly in a clearing in Chaos Forest. The birds paid him no mind, continuing their chitter chatter. Sunlight played with the shadows where the trees allowed, beams winking in and out of existence as the breeze danced with the leaves. As he neared Plumb Canyon, the unmistakable sounds of battle reached his ears. He crept closer, wanting to preserve the element of surprise. Sure enough, there were the stupid adolescents, in heated battle with some humans who were armed to the teeth.
Surveying the scene, he spotted four of his kind still standing. Bodies littered the area, some still breathing, others not. Most of them appeared to be unarmed humans. One of his kind lay unconscious, a death sentence for a Deimos. There was only one real law for their kind. The law of the jungle. If he couldn't bring himself back home, he wasn't going home at all. Two humans in full armor fought back to back, fending off the Drakyr as best they could. But it was the third human present that caught his eye.
Wispy brown hair swept over molten chocolate eyes. Her small, lithe body was shapely with no armor hiding her generous curves. She wore only a loose sky blue dress with white trim and a red sash cinching the waist. A blue gem glinted at her forehead, held in place by a nearly invisible tie that disappeared into her long tresses. Her only cover was a shoulder guard. She moved gracefully, her sword a blur of almost dance-like strikes and parries. She fought not with ferocity, but a bravery he'd never seen. He had never laid eyes on a human female before.
His thoughts were cut off as something made contact with his leg. Looking down, he saw a small human child had swung a wooden sword at him full force. He could almost laugh at how little good that did the creature.
"Take that, Deimos! I'm the Commander of the Children's Defense Corps!" It then changed tactics and jabbed the thing upwards, right into his eye. Windalf cursed angrily. That had hurt. Swiping the offending object from the kid, he snapped it in one clawed hand.
"Why you little brat," he was cut short as the female was suddenly there between him and what he intended to turn into a shish-kebob.
"Run, Duncan! Go home!"
The little one obeyed quickly, wide-eyed and sufficiently scared by the rendering of his toy into a pile of toothpicks. The woman kept her fiery gaze trained on him.
"End of the line, Deimos. I won't let you hurt anyone else."
Windalf studied her. She was in a defensive stance, eyeing him warily. Flashing his fangs at her, he settled into a more relaxed pose.
"What does a Deimos care for useless humans? You're not even worth the second it takes to end your miserable human life."
Her sword lowered a half inch. Obviously she was just as surprised by his behavior as he was.
"Why are you in human territory if not to attack?"
She was the only human he'd ever encountered that didn't strike on sight. Moreover, she was conversing with him! He felt compelled by the novelty of it to be truthful.
"Youthful folly on their parts. I came to round them up."
The sword lowered another two inches. She was actually listening to him. He was in completely uncharted waters.
"Why aren't you attacking me?"
He considered it. By all rights he should be bathing in her blood by now. He countered with a question of his own.
"I could ask the same of you."
She lowered her blade, but didn't sheath it.
"I only fight to protect. I'd like to avoid senseless bloodshed if I can."
"And what is it you protect?" He snorted a little, finding the prospect of a human knowing what was important in life ridiculous.
"My friends, my loved ones." She stuck her chin up defiantly, eyes daring him to call that stupid.
"I fight to protect, too." He crossed his arms and stood up a little straighter.
"What do you protect?" Unlike his, her question wasn't taunting, simply curious. It unnerved him.
"My family, my people."
To his bewilderment, she sheathed her sword.
"What are you doing?"
Her lips turned upward softly. "I don't want to fight you," the sound of voices caused her gaze to sweep towards the mines. "You should go. I may not want to fight you, but they will."
Windalf didn't want to leave. This human female had sparked his curiosity. He wanted to know everything about her, to understand what made her different, why she listened when others shouted and flung sharp pointy objects.
"Meet me tomorrow night, midnight in Chaos Forest." The low rumbly voice of the Deimos took on a note of urgency, his gaze flickering between the direction of the mines and her face. Ignoring the voice of reason, Nafia found herself nodding her agreement. Before anything else could be said, the Deimos was off, taking to the air to join his retreating brethren. Nafia watched as his royal blue form faded into the distance.
Nafia blinked and turned to Sir Dorian, knowing she was never going to hear the end of this.
"Look, I know what you're going to say. I should have stayed in town like you told me to, but if I hadn't shown up you and Lloyd would be-"
He cut her off. "Would be doing our duties to your family and Yewbell. Hasn't Lady Sarah been through enough losing Lord Kallen? Do you want to put her through the loss of a daughter, too?"
Nafia went silent, eyes on the ground. She hadn't thought of that. Sir Dorian's expression softened a little and he almost started to say something, but shut his mouth again. He was never very good at expressing things of that nature. Instead he turned to his son.
"Help me gather the dead and wounded and load them on one of the delivery carts. You'll stay here as sentry in case they return. You'll be relieved tonight." With that said, the three of them got to work helping the injured and taking them back to Yewbell for treatment. That evening, she returned to the castle ruins, this time detouring to the left and sitting down beside a marble headstone.
"Hi, dad…" She fiddled with the petals of the flowers blooming around the grave as her eyes traced the familiar letters engraved in the stone.
Kallen Frederick Nidellia, beloved king and defender, husband and father.
"I…I met a Deimos today. I'm trying hard to protect everyone like you did, but…no one ever told me how similar to us they are…did you ever know? Did you ever speak to them…? I wonder if anyone ever did. Did we all just take to the sword, or is the one I met just different? Who cast the first stone? I suppose it's impossible to tell now…I hope you aren't disappointed in me. I want to make you proud. You always wanted peace for Yewbell and Nidellia…I just think maybe the Deimos deserve it, too."
The next evening couldn't come fast enough. Nafia went about her day distractedly as if in a dream, her head in the clouds with the Deimos. She couldn't wait to learn more. Who was he? What was he like? How did the Deimos live?
Grateful that she already made a habit of this, she slipped silently out her window and snuck out the back gate into Chaos Forest. She wandered through the trees, suddenly unsure of how she'd find him. A whoosh of wings and there he was before her, the moonlight caressing his scaled body.
She took a moment to admire him. He really was quite impressive. His thick hide was the color of lapis lazuli, softening and lightening over his more vulnerable belly. He was a head taller than her so she had to look up at him. His eyes were dark to match his hair, out of which two horns twisted back against his head. A red birth mark in the shape of a crescent moon with triangular rays coming off it cradling a dot covered his right cheek. Horn-like spires jutted from his shoulders and elbows, and instead of nails his large hands bore claws. A pair of immense red wings were folded on his back, his tail flipping back and forth to some inner rhythm. He wore only a sort of red tunic with white tribal designs on his lower half, leaving his muscular chest open to view. She wondered if the designs had some special meaning to the Deimos.
"Human…" His head tilted, eyes questioning her extended observation.
"I've never seen a Deimos so close before." She admitted, smiling apologetically.
"What is that you keep doing?" He scowled.
"What?" She looked confused.
"With your mouth."
She blinked in surprise.
"Is that what you call it?"
"Smiling means you're happy. Don't you ever smile?"
Windalf was stunned into silence. She was…happy? With him? Why? Realizing she was awaiting a response, he shook his head.
"What do you do when you're happy, then?"
He considered it for a moment.
"Deimos are never happy. Power is everything and always we seek more of it."
Her face fell. He had made her…sad? Humans were so confusing.
"Ha! You see how useless happiness is? Already I have taken your happiness away. Power is not so easy to lose."
"That's a sad way to live. I can't imagine never being happy."
They fell into silence until he became distracted.
"What's this?" He gestured to her arm, where a bandage was wrapped snugly over a wound from the fray the day before.
"I was hit by a lucky swipe yesterday. It will be all better in a week or so."
"A week? Humans are such frail creatures. Let me see it."
She unwrapped the white strip of cloth, revealing a nasty set of claw marks marring her otherwise perfect skin. Slowly, so as not to scare her, he reached out and touched her arm just above her wrist, holding his breath as he did so, wondering what human flesh would feel like. Her skin was soft and smooth, foreign sensations to him. It was a pale pink kissed by the fading summer sun. To his surprise, she hadn't even flinched at his touch, just watched him curiously. His eyes darkened. Why was he not destroying this human? Why did he not want to? His grip tightened on her arm, testing the thickness of her bones.
"I could rip your limbs off. They'd snap like twigs."
She stared into his eyes, unwavering.
"Then why don't you?" Her brown eyes stared into his defiantly, unwavering.
Why didn't she fear him? He broke the stare and turned his attention back to her arm, running the flat of his palm up towards the damaged skin. Goosebumps rose in the wake of his touch.
"Cure…" Windalf murmured.
Tiny sparks of light rose against her skin from his hand, settling against the gashes and repairing them, knitting the flesh together and making her whole again. A smile lit up her face and she moved her arm from his hold, turning it at different angles to inspect his work.
"Wow! I had no idea Deimos could do healing magic!"
His eyes softened, enjoying her excitement. She was genuinely enthused by such a small display of magic.
"Doesn't take much to please you, huh?"
She turned her eyes from her arm to him again.
He scratched his head awkwardly.
"Yes, well, don't make a habit of it, human."
"You know, Deimos, I do have a name." She said pointedly, thrusting her chin up at him.
He blinked. It honestly hadn't occurred to him.
"What is it?"
She grinned coyly.
He scowled but complied, puffing his chest out proudly.
"Windalf of the Drakyr tribe."
"Hmm…Windalf. Has a nice ring to it." She said thoughtfully.
"Nafia Yuriel Nidellia of Yewbell."
She found she liked hearing her name in his gruff voice. Nodding a little in response, she sat down on a tree stump nearby, gazing up at him with curiosity. He stared at her for a moment with his dark eyes before settling on log.
"Nidellia…that's what the humans call their land on this continent, isn't it? When we fight, they often yell oaths in its name." He left the question in it unspoken, but she understood what he was getting at.
"Yes…and Nidellia is the name of the royal family, though royalty is an exaggeration. Nidellia is small, only Yewbell, really."
"So you're…a princess."
She nodded, wishing she knew what he was thinking as a dark look crossed his face. In one quick instant her sword, sheath and all, went flying several yards away and her back was pressed to a tree, the Deimos' scaly hand holding her throat. She stared into his hate-filled eyes, terrified. He growled angrily.
"I could kill you. I could destroy the royal line, fill the humans with despair…or I could use you! I could take you hostage and bend them to my will!" He took several deep breaths, his grip loosening and tightening in turn.
"Why?" Nafia choked out, struggling to keep air in her lungs, her hands holding his wrist, trying to get his hold to let up.
"Yes…why? Why do you not fear me…hate me…why do I…?" His dark eyes were full of turmoil, his expression troubled as he finally released the pressure on her neck, but didn't move his hand.
"…Why should I hate you? I know nothing about you." She softened.
"I'm a Deimos and you a human." He said, eyes growing cold again.
"And? Who decided I should dislike Deimos? Hm?" Summoning up her courage, she stared defiantly into his eyes. "Why should I fight you?"
"We are enemies!" He snarled, finally moving his hand to run it through his hair, pacing in the small clearing.
"According to who? You? Well I'm not buying it and I'm not letting you bully me into such a stupid argument." On a whim, she grabbed his arm and turned him to face her, making eye contact.
"You…" he growled, frustrated, then sighed, losing his anger. It was difficult to stand up to that bold gaze. "You are so different from other humans…"
"And you're different from other Deimos…so let's not be 'human' and 'Deimos.' Let's be Nafia and Windalf."