Divina had always supposed she would meet the goddess Audrashni someday. In her line of work, she had met plenty of shades and sorcerers. She had the occasional run-in with sly devils and undead abominations. And even once, had taken a quite pleasant tea with an ancient Eclipsis dragon that, unknown to Divina, had taken human form. Her mentor, Akkoni, had decided to reveal the true nature of Mr. Grimash to the shocked young Paladin, several weeks after their encounter. Akkoni got a kick out of that revelation and, as she always did, had used the event to teach her ward about the dangers of assuming that this world is at all what it seems at first glance.
She knew at some point she was bound to meet the goddess. After all, she had been a faithful servant of the storm deity since she had come to the southern citadel as a starving barbarian child. To this day she served in her goddess-given-mission, content in the knowledge that her reward was bound to come to her. Eventually.
For now, however, there was a lot of work ahead of her and she had a schedule to keep with a demon.
Divina, Paladin in training, walked the winding road from Longrain to Orholt. Storm clouds swirled across the distant countryside, heavy laden with rain and a bristling with pent up energy. They threatened to break without ever breaking. Divina could feel it. The tension that hung as the lour moved in and around the dark forest sky. Very few things could restrict the power of a summer storm like this. Whatever it was gave the paladin a world of dread. She didn’t like to think about it. Circumstances like this made a chill run down her back and her knees felt like they couldn’t find a stable stance.
She hated fear. The involuntary things it did to her body. The way that it used to make her weak and vulnerable and open to attack. The way that it could just strip her of all her training and send her running into the wilderness, like a fool-child, once again.
“‘Where the goddess walked, no one could stand. Flee my enemies from where the storm is found.’” She repeated the mantra of wisdom to herself, despite knowing the truth. She knew which circumstances could stop an ancient deity like Audrashni from freely moving through mortal lands. Her duty could no longer wait.
This was the first exorcism she had performed without Akkoni there to lead or guide her. A binding like this was a common ceremony for novices to perform, and practiced under the wise and watchful eye of a seasoned Paladin master, injury and death were an all together uncommon occurrence in the history of the temple. But they happened, and Divina didn’t have her teacher here to help her.
She checked the bindings on her sword belt, armour, pouches and pack as she strode towards her destination, the town of Orholt, at the heart of the forest.
As soon as her feet hit the forest floor she could feel the influence of a shadow-spirit. A shade of the demons making that had followed her since she had passed the small towns mile marker, as she left the main road that ran some way around the perimeter of Orholt.
She had entered the dark wood and it had stayed barely a whisper away from the holy warrior of the temple of Ilk-Lem-Ardorn since then. It’s purpose was to attempt to unravel her confidence and undermine her faith using whispered worries and half-spoken temptations. It was a dirty tactic, and it was proving itself to be just like every demon Divina and Akkoni had faced together before. They were all the same. Predictable.
She touched the bark of a tree as she passed close by. The once hardy ironwood had turned to mush that came away in her gloved hand. She hadn’t seen corruption like this before. For a demon to break the natural world like this was a bad sign. A foul reek emanated from the substance in her hand.. The smell of overly-sweet rotting fruit and deep sulphur lingered in the air. This demon must be some darkstalker of a forgotten age. Something so truly evil and foul that had somehow had wormed its way into this plane of existence and had now rotted this once green woodland to little more than a withered and petrified shadow of what it had been.
She had heard, in a nearby town, that this place had not long ago been vibrant with flora and fauna. A place prosperous with resources. Now nothing but silk strands clung to the starved and barren trees. Each one of the ghostly filaments descended all around her like the grasping tentacles of a jellyfish. She made sure not to touch them, for at the tip of each one hung a bird or an animal that had once lived in this forest, now fallen prey to the abominations that were its new inhabitants, the creatures that followed the ruin of a demon. The skeletal figures of the unfortunate woodland creatures cast ghastly silhouettes through the translucent bulbs of webbing. The threads captured the ambience just enough, twisting and warping what little light from the setting sun had managed to break it’s way through the emaciated remains of the trees.
The shadow-spirit that haunted Divina did not, however, belong to one of these creatures. The nightmares that pursued the rot were unholy monstrosities that skittered and crawled from one shadowy place to another. Never showing their true form, never exposing themselves for more than a few moments. They stayed hidden, above all else, and the only time that an unfortunate beast or bird would see the horrific design of its captor, was in the few brief moments before they would envelope the prey with dozens of snapping and piercing limbs. Finally, half dead, the wretched creatures would drag their quarry away into the trees to become yet another nightmarish ornament hanging from the petrified boughs.
Where the creatures worked on the instinct to survive, this demon was worse. It was an intelligent being that liked to see living-things squirm and suffer. A fiendish creature that enjoyed slinking from one miserable victim to the next. Monsters like this would revel in making deals. The promises of power, or wealth, or revenge would be given to a mortal who was down on their luck, with nowhere else to turn and then would take delight as the mortal would tear themselves, their families and their communities apart trying to keep hold of their ill-gotten gains.
It was these kinds of creatures that the Paladin had sworn to destroy. The reason she now ventured into that dark-hearted woodland. She had made a sacred oath to bring swift justice to anyone or anything that took advantage of the helpless and downtrodden. An oath she would die for.