“We are agents of Midgard, here for your protection. A being from Hel has breached our defenses and infiltrated your realm. Avoid contact at all costs and aid us in the retrieval if you want to contain this infection, Isaac rattled off.
“I don't think she's listening,” Caroline said and knelt down next to the distressed woman. Smoke from the burned out inn momentarily concealed her.
“I don't see anybody else around,” Isaac said and kicked up a cloud of ash. He watched as Caroline managed to guide the woman away from the smoking mess. There were no bodies visible and the woman seemed largely unharmed. This was far better than he had expected when they spotted the smoke stack. It left him eager to press on.
“Shut up and act like a proper guardian of the Realm.” Caroline sneered at him before turning her attention to the woman again. She took off her coat and put it around the poor thing, whispering soothing words.
“This isn't my Realm,” Isaac muttered but kept his distance.
“You are from Midgard?” The woman suddenly gasped. Her eyes slowly focused on the world again. “Are you here for him?”
“Yes,” Caroline said. “We will make the bad thing go away.”
“Good,” the woman said as she stared at the sky.
“My name is Caroline. What is your name, woman of Asgard?”
“This is very important, Samantha,” she said as she slowly moved in front of Samantha. “What did the bad man do and where did he go when he was finished?”
“It wasn't a man.” Her eyes grew wide.
“She's smarter than she looks,” Isaac remarked dryly. A closer inspection of the burned down building had yielded nothing but the woman.
“What did it do and where did it go?” Caroline asked.
“It said crazy things,” Samantha said after a moment of thought. “Then everyone went crazy and...I don't want to talk about it. The man-thing ate everything in our kitchen and left in the direction of Elysium.”
“Wonderful,” Isaac said sarcastically. “Perhaps it will be so fat now that we can simply tip it over to subdue it.”
“Do they normally eat so much?” Caroline said, refusing to acknowledge his attempts at humor.
“When they get the chance. It makes them really...jumpy. We'd better get going.”
“Do you have any family you can go to?” Caroline asked Samantha. She didn't see Isaac rolling his eyes with an amused smile.
“I...there's an uncle who lives on a farm down the road.”
“Make sure you get the help you feel you need,” Caroline continued in her soothing tone as she helped Samantha on her feet. After some encouragement the young woman started to go her way.
“Will she be okay?” Isaac said as they watched her go.
“No,” Caroline said plainly. “Now where do you think all the men have gone?”
“I resent that,” Isaac said. “How do you know only the men have left?”
“Oh please, only men would be so easily corrupted.”
“That's discrimination,” he smiled. “I'm so going to report that when we get back.”
“Ha, you'll probably join the infected idiots as soon as we find them.” An awkward silence followed in which neither of them knew how much they had actually been joking.
“These people lived pretty close to the gateway to our Realm,” Isaac finally said. “That probably made them more susceptible.”
“You're the expert.”
“I am.” He perked up. “So, I am telling you that the intruder will be even harder to find now that it has fed. Where are these Asgardian knights we're supposed to respect so much? We're going to need their help.”
“They have been informed,” Caroline said. They both started to walk into the direction the distraught woman had indicated. “You'd better respect them when we encounter them. They are pure and strong in ways we as knights of Midgard can only strive to be.”
“Oh poppycock,” he said and rolled his eyes, in plain view this time. “Most of these people have probably never seen blood before.”
“True. Don't you wish you could say the same.”
“There are a lot of things I wish I had never seen,” he laughed. “Experience with somewhat less horrible things, like blood, makes me able to deal with it.”
“You think yourself so tough and wise,” she said with a teasing smile. “You should pay attention to what you see here.”
“I will. Not many of my brothers will ever get to see these lands.”
“None, if things go well from now on.”
“This blasted sun is making my head hurt.”
“You'll long for it's light, in due time. Will the invader be similarly affected?”
“I doubt it. Light in the Below tends to scorch the retina's. It's used to it.”
“What else is it...used to?”
“Constant hunger and thirst. Disease. Horrors you can not begin to imagine while in your happy bright realm of butterflies and rainbows. There are monsters there larger than the tallest building in the Republic but it also scales down to swarms of insects the size of a grain of salt. They eat your bones and leave the flesh for the other predators. We think they might be sentient.”
“How does our target survive among all those other monsters?”
“By running fast, jumping high, hitting hard and eating whatever it can get it's hands on. For some reason that niche makes them look like us.”
“Makes you think, huh?” She reflexively glanced around. “You probably shouldn't be telling me this.”
“Knowing this may be useful when we confront this thing.” He laughed again. It sounded less nervous each time. “It's actually a bit of a relief to be able to tell somebody.”
“Keeping this information secret doesn't make it easier to cope with it.”
“Si guarda al fine.” He smiled teasingly. “It is for the greater good.”
“Sure.” She managed an uncomfortable smile. “So, what are we dealing with here...exactly?”
“You mean they didn't tell you? Typical.” His smile was sadder this time. “We've tried to civilize them but every city we build with them is eventually burned down. They are beyond redemption. That's all I need to know about these humanoid abominations that inhabit the Below. I don't think this is one of the transforming kinds but be prepared for it to...change. This just seems to be a particularly cunning one of the basic kind though. Just small enough to slip through the cracks and big enough to do some serious damage.”
“If that Realm is so dangerous, then why do we even bother with it?”
“Why do we bother with this place?” He nudged her and started walking backwards. This Realm felt so safe compared to his usual working environment that he didn't feel like looking where he was going. “I guess it started with exploration. Then it became about self-defense. Now it's just about control. The fact that there are lakes of oil there and precious minerals just stick out of the ground helps. Our government is content to use it as place to send undesirables. The Brotherhood of the Night attempts to exploit the realm's natural and scientific resources but that barely returns the investment. It provide a good campaign to sink conscripts into though. Whatever keeps us busy, right?”