Jayn takes in a deep breath, feeling the cool, damp air enter her lungs. The stars above glow dimly. The moon shines brightly down the land. And the dead are having their fun - precisely the reason she's inside her tent, rather than outside in the fields. They're lovely, she's sure, but loveliness has a way of betraying people.
That said, she peers out occasionally, getting a look at the beautiful way the moonlight dances off of the misty haze. It distracts her from the thoughts that have been plaguing her.
She jumps at the shout. Was someone really out there? Why? Why would they deign to be out and about on a full moon?!
"Oy!" The shout comes again, louder. It's a human male, she deduces, and he sounds quite distressed.
She's never been one to abandon those to ask for help - even if indirectly. She picks up her weapon, just in case, then steps carefully out of her tent and rushes in the direction she'd heard the voice come from. "Hello? Is anyone there?" she calls out.
A figure comes running forward, towards her, and then the man drops to the ground, breathless. He wears armor, displaying an emblem that shows loyalty to the human empire. But what would he be doing out here?
After a moment of silence, where the man just gasps for breath, she reaches down and helps the man stand.
"Thank you, miss...?"
"My name is Jayn," she supplies.
The man nods. "And I am Reginald. Private Reginald, Grimoire's third division."
Jayn looks over the man carefully, a concerned frown on her face. "Are you injured?"
"I don't believe so," Reginald replies. "But I can't say the same for my comrades."
"Your fellows, are they-"
"We were given orders to retreat," Reginald interrupts, "but I was separated from my squad in the mist."
Jayn nods in understanding. "Well, we should try to reunite you with your squad."
Reginald looks at her skeptically. "Do you know this area?" she asks.
"It's not my home, but I know it well enough not to run into trouble. I can't guarantee that we'll find your squad mates, but we won't get lost."
Reginald nods in understanding, but he's still frowning. "Unfortunately, I dropped my torch as we fled. Do you have a torch?"
Jayn blinks. "Torch?" she repeats. "No. Why, do you expect your fellows to be carrying torches?"
Reginald looks appalled that she would think to ask. "Of course."
"The moon is out," Jayn says petulantly, pointing upwards for emphasis. "If your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, and I hope that they have by now, you'll see farther by the light of the moon than by the light of a torch. Besides, torches are unwieldy things - more likely to blind you than to shine a clear path on a night like tonight."
Reginald pauses, as if to consider this. "Our squad always has at least two active torch bearers," he eventually says.
"Well then, I don't suspect we'll have much difficulty finding them."
And without letting Reginald argue with her, she marches off into the fog. She hears Reginald following her, a few paces behind.
The fog grows thicker and thicker as they venture closer and closer towards that castle, but it's easy for Jayn to pick out familiar things or landmarks through it, even still. It takes her less than a minute to spot glowing torchlight in the distance. "Do you see that glimmer of light?" she asks, pointing it out to the soldier.
"Yes," is all Reginald says. It takes great effort for her to not roll her eyes.
"Looks like we found your friends," she explains in a careful tone.
Reginald nods weakly. "Let's hope so."
Jayn quickens her pace and follows the light. "Call out to your friends," she says to Reginald over her shoulder. "They might not take kindly to the sight of a stranger right now."
Reginald nods at that, and calls out, "Ho!"
A new voice responds, "Who goes there?!"
"Sergeant Thomas, it's me!"
Jayn and Reginald are now close enough for this 'Sergeant Thomas' to recognize him. "Reginald?" he says.
"Yes, sir." Reginald runs forward, meeting his squad.
Thomas sighs, and places a firm hand on Reginald's shoulder. "Thank the gods you're alive. What happened?"
"My torch went out and I became lost in the mists. Fortunately, I chanced upon this traveler who was able to guide me to you."
It's then that Thomas notices Jayn's presence. He smiles kindly at her. "Thank you for returning my man. To who do I owe the pleasure?"
"My name is Jayn," she says. "I was just passing through these parts. And I suggest that you move as well. This is not the night to loiter about."
"Aye," Thomas says with a grave nod, "we've abandoned our mission and are on the retreat. Can you lead us out of these mists?"
Jayn gives a comforting smile, and nods. "Indeed I can," she says.
With that, she begins walking, and the entire squad of human soldiers fall into step behind her. Evidently, Thomas isn't comfortable with silent marching, because he quickly strikes up conversation with her. "Are you familiar with this region?"
"I know it well enough. This isn't my first time here," she says.
She can sense Thomas's frown as he says, "What could have brought you here more than once?"
"I've spent quite a bit of my adult life working as a merchant," she says. "In that time, I've found one key ingredient to being a successful merchant. And that is to be willing to travel where other merchants wouldn't dare to set foot. It gives one less competition to work with, you see."
"Well, we certainly appreciate your assistance," Thomas says.
Soon enough, they've made their way out of the fog and up to where Jayn's tent is pitched. "Well, here we are," she says. "Is there anything else I can do for you gentlemen?"
"Thank you for getting my men out safely. I appreciate your help," Thomas says. "But I wonder if I might impose on you once more."
"I did offer," Jayn says. "Name it."
"I lead a squad, but we are part of a much larger force," Thomas explains. "An entire company, in fact."
"A company... That's one hundred men?"
"One hundred and twenty," Thomas corrects.
Jayn frowns at that. One hundred and twenty men... "What are all of you doing out on a night like this, if I may ask?"
"This foggy mist that covers N'Mar is unnatural," Thomas says. "The council of Grimoire believes that there is sinister magic behind it. We were sent to investigate, with the castle being the focus of our attention." He sighs, a frown coming to his face. "My squad became so ensnared in the fog that it seemed futile to press on, and so we made the order to retreat and regroup. We made it out unscathed, with your help. But... I am forced to wonder if perhaps other platoons weren't so fortunate."
Jayn interrupts Thomas before he can continue on, "I will help you. I assisted your private in finding your squad, I can assist your squad in finding your company."
Thomas visibly relaxes at this. "Thank you," he says. "Your kindness will not be forgotten. I'll do everything I can to ensure that you're rewarded for your efforts."
"I need no reward," Jayn says. "All I ask is that you and your group follow my instructions and judgments exactly. Can you do that?"
"Your judgment in these fields is likely much more sound than my own," Thomas says.
"First of all," Jayn says, "I need your men to extinguish their torches."
One of the soldiers shouts, "That's preposterous!" almost before she's even done speaking.
Thomas, on the other hand, calmly asks, "Why do you need us to put out our torches?"
"Because the torches will only light the ground a few feet in front of you," Jayn explains. "If you're hoping for your vision to go further than that, you should do it using light you've already been given." She pointed up to the moon. "Your eyes will adjust to the dark if you put out your torches. They're more hindrance than help."
Thomas nods, and turns to his soldiers. "Do as she says. Extinguish the torches."
The torch-bearers look at each other, then begrudgingly obey.
"Next," Jayn says, "the way you march is a bit problematic. Marching single-file is fine if you're hoping to conceal numbers. But if we encounter anything troublesome, we'll want to look numerous and intimidating. We need to look like we can do them harm. So marching in rank formation would be our best bet."
Thomas nods again. "As you wish."
"And finally. There are many beasts in this land, I'm sure you know. Being quick to attack, however, is not always the best way to respond. If we run into some kind of resistance, I must ask that you allow me to decide how your crew responds. Can you allow me this?"
"As I said, I'll have to trust your judgment."
With her criticisms over and done with, Jayn gets on with the problem. "You said your fellows were headed in the direction of the castle, correct?"
"Well, then, let's get to it. They won't find themselves."
Jayn marches into the mist once more. Thomas and the others follow after. As she looks to her left and right, Jayn is pleased to see that the men have taken on a proper rank formation.
A gravelly moan breaks this pleased feeling, however. She stops walking. "Do you hear that?"
"It sounds like zombies," Jayn says. "Perhaps six, maybe more. Have you encountered any of them before?"
"No, we haven't... We were warned that we might encounter the formerly dead in this field, but we never came face-to-face with any of them."
Jayn nods. "Well, you're about to. Zombies are mindless beasts. It would be good to dispatch them now. Otherwise they may follow us. Are you and your men ready for battle?"
"Ready," Thomas confirms with a determined nod.
Jayn nods, and she and the soldiers ready their weapons.
The zombies are fairly easily defeated. Jayn watches as the last one falls to the ground with a pain-filled shriek. The sound makes her heart jump.
"Well, that was a great deal easier than I expected," Thomas says, drawing her from her thoughts.
"Zombies are dangerous in numbers," she notes. "But individually, they're not much threat. Which is why I suggested we dispatch them now, or their ranks would have grown more abundant, and more dangerous to deal with." She turns the direction they came from. "We're deep enough in that my tent is barely visible in the distance. Can you see it?"
Thomas and the others look. "Indeed, I can," Thomas says.
Then, Jayn points to an oak tree, mere feet away from where they stand. "This is the largest landmark we'll be able to encounter for a while. If any of you should get lost or separated as we move forward, make your way to this tree, then return to my tent. Understood?"
The men all nod in agreement, and then Jayn continues leading them.
It's not long before they see the dancing light of moving torches in the distance. She points it out. "That looks like the rest of your company."
Thomas, however, frowns in concern. "That doesn't look like enough men to be the entire company... And look, they're moving away from the castle. They must be on retreat."
"Want to find out what they're running from?" Jayn asks. But it's not a question, and Thomas seems to understand that, because he simply continues following after her.
Soon enough, they meet up with the retreating soldiers. "Ho there!" Thomas calls out.
"Sergeant Thomas!" one of the soldiers cries out.
The retreating soldiers come to a complete halt. Thomas and Jayn both scan the crowd. There are about twenty soldiers - enough to constitute a single platoon. "Where is your commanding officer?" Thomas asks.
"I was serving under Sergeant Coburn," the first soldier says. "He was killed in action."
"I'm part of the fourth platoon," another soldier says. "Our sergeant was also killed."
"Where's the captain?" Thomas asks, but he seems to know the answer he will receive.
The soldier looks down at the ground. "Also dead," he says, confirming it.
Thomas whispers a curse, shaking his head. "What the hell happened out there?" he asks, to no one in particular.
"We encountered... Something. Men started dying," the soldier says. "I heard someone yell the order to retreat, and we made our way out with all due haste."
Thomas looks over the small crowd of men. "You twenty men are all that escaped...?"
"To my knowledge, sir."
"Well, let's get the hell out of here," Thomas says. "Jayn, can you lead the way back?"
Jayn nods. "I'd say the sooner we get moving, the better."
She turns towards the direction of the oak tree. But as she begins moving, she feels pinpricks at her skin. She shivers. "Do you feel that?" she asks, wanting to ensure that it's not only her.
Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Thomas says, "So it's not just me?"
"There's something bad coming this way," Jayn warns.
And then, before anyone else could say anything, a figure appears in the mist. Whoever it is seems to be advancing quickly - not by running, though. He seems to be floating. "Get ready," Jayn warns. "Those of you who still have your weapons, get them out. Make sure whoever this is knows you have them. Get ready to stand your ground."
"Do as she says!" Thomas shouts, pulling out his own sword.
Jayn hears more than sees blades being drawn, more focused on the figure in the mist. Her brow narrows with hardened resolve.
Eventually, the figure stops in front of them. "Hello there, interlopers," he says with a casual grin. His fangs are on full display.
Not common, but not exactly unheard of for N'Mar.
The vampire looks over the group, left, right, then left again, then settles his gaze on Jayn. She meets his gaze evenly, reading him quite easily. His eyes lack the confidence that his body seems to hold. He snarls and flashes his fangs just as she thinks this - and yet she still sees no confidence. Her calm expression, as a result, does not waver. "Unlike you," she says calmly, "I won't bite. Well... Maybe. I might be lying."
The vampire seems unsure of how to respond. Luckily, he doesn't have to. Jayn immediately gestures to the group of soldiers behind her. "Perhaps I need to point out the obvious," she says. "I have thirty men at my side. There is only one of you. If you want a fight, we'll give you a fight. But for your sake, I think it'd be best if you went on your way."
"Thirty?" the vampire repeats with a flat expression. Then, he grins. "I think I can manage that."
Before Jayn or anyone in her group can ask questions, or run away for that matter, the vampire kneels down, and places a palm on the ground. A glow radiates from his hand, and the ground around him begins shaking. It's not long before it breaks, and then a ghastly hand breaks through the soil. Then another. And another. And another.
The men behind Jayn gasp as ghouls lift themselves from the ground.
"Now, if I recall correctly, you were just offering me a fight," the vampire points out, casual smile on his lips. "I'd like to take you up on that."
Well, the men standing behind Jayn are nothing if not entirely brave. Not one of them runs in terror. Jayn grins, and rushes to slice down the very first ghoul.
Partway through the fight, the vampire sees fit to begin speaking. He dodges a hit from Thomas, then says, casual as can be, "I killed all your friends back at the castle." He grins even wider. "Scores of them, slain in seconds. Now I'm going to kill you. With my army of ghouls, thirty men is nothing to me."
Jayn laughs as she yanks her weapon from the slain body of a ghoul she's just killed. "I doubt that very much," she says. "You don't have the look of a vampire who's just killed scores of men." She turns to the vampire, eyeing him tauntingly. "If killing thirty men truly is nothing to you, then why haven't you done it yet? Come now, or I'm going to start thinking you're all talk."
Eventually, while the others focus more intensely on the ghouls, Jayn focuses on the vampire. It's not long before she finally, finally, knocks him to the ground, and points her weapon at his face. He flinches back, and that moment of fear, that moment of hesitation is all it needs for his concentration on the ghouls to break. They all fall to pieces. Jayn grins, and pulls her weapon away as a flash of realization comes over the vampire's face.
"You might want to go away, now," Jayn says casually. "Before I decide to really kill you. Unlike you, I'll actually follow through on that threat."
The vampire lets out a low growl. But he stands, and gallops off into the night, the mist quickly concealing his form. Thomas kicks at one of the ghouls on the ground. "What are these, Jayn?" he asks, catching her attention.
"Lifeless husks," she says. "Puppets, in a sense. They can't do anything without a master to control them." She looks in the direction that the vampire ran off in. "He was powerful enough to summon this many. I knew that would be a problem, whether or not he could truly control them. So I distracted him well enough that he would drop control of them completely. Make sense?"
Jayn nods. Then, she leads Thomas and the other soldiers through the mists once more, back to her tent.
And there, someone is sitting, almost seeming to be waiting for her.
"Who are you?" Jayn immediately asks the woman.
She stands, holding herself proudly. "My name is Karen," she says. "I'm an Amazon from the west."
"What brings you here?" Jayn asks.
"I saw a group of human men fleeing near the gates of the castle of N'Mar. It looked like they encountered something dire out there. I came to look for survivors." She looks behind Jayn, silently appraising the soldiers. "I take it that these are all that remain of the group I saw...?"
"How is it," Jayn says, instead of responding, "that you were able to see what happened?"
"Well, I didn't see everything," Karen says. "The fog was thick. Too thick for me to fly in and land. So I came out here."
Jayn blinks. "Fly? Land?"
"I came here by griffon."
It's here that Thomas sees fit to argue. "But griffons are forbidden to fly in the lands over the human empire!"
Karen smirks over at the man. "Relax, soldier. Our treaty with the human empire allows the council of Grimoire to approve the use of griffons for non-military ventures," she says. "I was on my way to Grimoire on a diplomatic mission when I saw your men under attack."
Thomas let out a groan. "You'll have to answer to the council for this," he warns.
"I intend to do exactly that," Karen says. "I was headed in precisely their direction. And the events I observed will no doubt be of interest to them as well. You and your men are headed back to Gimoire as well, I trust?"
Thomas's hostility all but drains, and he slumps a bit as he lets out a sigh. "Yes," he says. "Our mission is over. We've nothing left to do but report back to the council."
"Dwarf," Karen speaks, quite obviously referring to Jayn, "you should head back to Grimoire with these men. I believe the council will want to hear your report of the events as well." Jayn blinks, and before she can even respond, Karen is already continuing, "I'll fly ahead to report to the council. You should make your own way there with all due haste."
"Hold up," Thomas says, frowning over at Karen. "What authority do you have to report directly to the council?"
"I already told you," Karen says, sounding exasperated. "I'm Karen. The queen of the Amazons."
And with that, Karen turns on her heel and marches to her griffon, which Jayn now sees is waiting on the other side of her tent. "Once I get to Grimoire," Karen says over her shoulder, "I'll let them know to anticipate your arrival."
And with that, Karen easily hops onto her griffon, and takes off into the night.
There's a brief silence, and then, Thomas says, "She's right, you know. You should come back to Grimoire with us. You've done me and my men a great service. I'll do everything I can to see that you're recognized for your charity."
Jayn sighs. "I told you, no reward is necessary," she says. "However, I suppose I'll go, anyway. If only to ensure that you lot can make it there safely."
It's clearly a joke, and the entirety of the soldiers all laugh.