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Cadien




More than two decades had passed since Cadien had brought the Sirens to live within his realm. Since then they had spent many hours filling Meliorem’s halls with music, raising Cadien’s spirits when they were at their lowest. Neiya had disapproved at first, when she first stumbled across them so long ago, but since then seemed to have come to a grudging tolerance.

The God of Perfection had ensured they kept their distance from his palace when Neiya was visiting, and those who chose to defy that rule quickly learned the error of their ways. When Neiya was not visiting, however, Cadien ensured that he did not neglect his realm’s inhabitants; spending days at a time touring their village, and making modifications to increase the comfort of its inhabitants.

It was not all songs, dance, and cheer, however. Cadien’s continued faithfulness to Neiya had led many female Sirens to envy or even despise the Horned Goddess. Although they had plenty of male companionship, for some that was not enough, and they still yearned for the God of Perfection whose castle was just a short walk from their home. From where they stood, it seemed as if Neiya was the only thing keeping them from that.

The male sirens were not oblivious to this, which in turn led them to resent Cadien himself. It was a hard thing, to know one’s lover would rather be with someone else, and being powerless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the Lady-in-Waiting was gone. She had departed to search for her ‘Lady’ who had vanished within the God of Ink’s realm. Cadien had been deeply saddened by her departure, and afterward had forbidden any more Sirens from leaving Meliorem. Many had been unhappy with this decision as well, for they had been hoping to meet some of the other deities Cadien spoke of, but most had not been particularly bothered. After all, the only gods they had met were Cadien and Neiya. They knew they had a god of their own, of course, but he or she had abandoned them. With these experiences in mind, Cadien stood alone as a positive example.

And so for now the dissenters remained a minority, keeping their thoughts to themselves. Cadien was still a god, and this was still his realm. He had saved them and given them a home. And the men had been created directly by his own hand, so they owed him additional gratitude for that. Besides, Cadien had done his best to ensure their happiness despite their misgivings. It was for these reasons that the dissenters had not acted.

Not yet, anyway.



There were six of them, all seated at a table, with cards in their hand. At the head was Cadien himself. The rest were Sirens; two men, and three women. Three more stood in a corner, playing a song with vocals, a flute, and a lute.

One of the Sirens, a man with a greenish tint to his skin, smiled confidently and placed a card upon the table.

“You have to draw four more cards.”

Cadien’s expression darkened. But the rules were rules. He reached for the pile and pulled out four more cards, which he added to his hand. The game was not looking good. He took some solace in the fact that this was mostly a game of chance, and thus there was less shame in suffering a defeat at the hands of a mortal. Besides, the game was not over yet, and perhaps it could still be salvaged.

And so they continued to play. Cadien found that his luck was beginning to turn around. Unfortunately, it was not enough. However, it was not the smug-looking man who won, but a female Siren instead, whose skin had a rather bluish looking hue. She smirked confidently as she announced her victory. “Well, this has been a pleasure,” she declared, as her gaze settled on Cadien. “What do I win?”

Cadien raised an eyebrow. “I don’t recall announcing any sort of prize.”

She pouted. “Oh but it’s not every day that one bests a god. Or knocks down the ego of Cleon here.” She inclined her head toward the rather sullen looking male song, who forced a smile and waved it off. “Surely I deserve some sort of prize for these achievements?”

“Tell me, then,” Cadien said. “What is it you desire most?”

“Something you’re not willing to give,” she said, frowning briefly, while several other songs visibly cringed or rolled their eyes. Then the smile returned. “But I could instead settle for a leading role in the next performance?”

“Julara won’t be happy about that,” another Song - this one red - interjected.

“Julara has played a leading part in over a thousand plays,” the blue Song countered, before looking back to Cadien. “Surely you would appreciate something different?”

Cadien considered that for a few moments. “Hm… why not? A bit of healthy competition won’t hurt anyone.” The Song smiled brightly at his words. “Now then, onto other matters.”

“Can you tell us what’s happening on Galbar, my lord?” a yellow Song requested. “More tales of the Acadians? Or of Carnelian’s adventures?”

“You’re very interested in Galbar, aren’t you?” Cadien queried. “Are my presence and Meliorem’s comforts not enough for you?”

“Oh no, they’re alright. I-I mean great! No, perfect,” the Song stammered nervously. “I just… I’m curious about what’s outside. Your stories are our only source of information for new songs.”

Cadien stroked his chin. “Hm. That’s true, isn’t it.”

“You know, I don’t see why we can’t just visit Galbar ourselves,” Cleon interjected.

“You know why,” the red Song said. “The other gods are too dangerous.”

“But there are no gods on Galbar, are there?” the blue Song intervened.

“There aren’t?” the yellow song’s eyes widened, before her gaze swivelled back to Cadien. “Is this true?”

“It is true, yes,” Cadien nodded grudgingly. “But just because there aren’t any gods doesn’t mean it’s safe. The gods still hold influence over the land, and they have created many dangers. Some by design, and others… by mistake. Even if you avoid those dangers it will still be a hard life. You’ll need to eat, sleep, and drink. In my realm you can do these things whenever you want, in infinite supply. On Galbar you’ll need to seek them out, or work for them. You will come to know age, fatigue, and hunger; three things you never have to worry about here.” He leaned forward, reaching across the table to place a hand on hers. “It’s safer for you to stay.”

Seeming dejected, the yellow song cast her gaze down at the table. But the blue song took up the next sally. “Is there nothing you can do to keep us safe while we’re down there, then? Or bring us back when we are in danger?”

Cadien leaned back. “I could, but it’s no simple task, and may require quite a lot of strain and effort on my part.”

“But think of the benefits, my lord. We’ll be down on Galbar, singing your praises and spreading your name to all mortals! You once said you had trouble getting them to listen to you, didn’t you? Why not let us help? It’s the least you can do, after all you have done for us.”

That gave Cadien pause. Images passed through his mind. Of Sirens marching with armies, playing music to inspire the troops, or impressing nobles in aristocratic gatherings. He imagined his Songs travelling the realm, passing his name on to those who had forgotten him, or had never been aware of his existence in the first place. “When you phrase it that way, the idea does have some merit,” he conceded. “But, I will need to think on this. As I said, it is no simple task.”

Both the yellow and blue songs smiled gratefully, with excitement behind their eyes.






Cadien

&
Neiya




Meliorem’s throne room was different, for the God of Perfection had taken up a new hobby.

A series of paintings hung on the walls. Of landscapes, of cities, of people. There was one of Carn, Evette, Alys, and Brundt standing together; Carn and Alys were smiling, while Brundt and Evette seemed dour and sullen. There was another of the warrior Dakari, standing in the heat of battle and stained with blood. A third painting was of an archer taking aim at a hydra, with a magnificent bow in his hands. There were more: a red-haired sorceress standing triumphant over fallen iskrill, a white-haired blacksmith duelling a veteran warrior while a hooded mage watched from the background, and an outnumbered warband standing against a Ketrefan army.

Now, Cadien stood in the middle of the room, a canvas before him. He had almost finished his seventh painting, and he believed it was perhaps his finest one yet.

But focusing would be difficult. In the midst of painting, the door to Neiya's realm rattled with ominous intent before swinging open. After a long break in visits, it seemed the Love Goddess had decided the dry spell of visits was over. The curvaceous silhouette of her most recent form appeared in the archway, and she soundlessly hovered into the halls of Meliorem, door slamming shut behind her. Gold eyes fell around the hall briefly, though her gaze quickly centered itself on Cadien.

The God of Perfection smiled at her. “Looking as beautiful as ever, love. What brings you here?”

Neiya narrowed her eyes ever so slightly, gaze shifting between the God and his easel. "Can't I simply wish to see my beloved?" she lamented, a dramatic and humoured frown on her features. Having entertained herself, she hovered closer to Cadien, a few moments of curiosity awarded to his hobby. "Perhaps I wanted your advice on a matter as well. You are the King of Mortals after all."

“Oh rest assured, your company is never unwelcome,” Cadien assured her, raising an eyebrow. “What sort of advice do you seek?”

Neiya pulled her hands behind her back, wings lifting in gentle flutter as she glanced about the hall in a manner most uncharacteristic. "Ah, it's on the matter of mortals. You follow their lives a lot and I was wondering how often they eat, how warm they need to be. Just general tips. Oh, is this a Neiyari?" the goddess offered, changing topic midway as she caught sight of the painting of Dakari. Her body lifted further from the ground as she carried herself in its direction.

“It is,” Cadien nodded. “One of your children who I have decided to bestow my favour upon. Do you like the painting?”

She cast a sideways glance towards Cadien, before looking back at the painting. Long fingers reached out to gently touch at it. "I do. It's very scenic. There are a few others that seem familiar enough to me. You truly paint a vivid picture, my love."

“Why thank you,” Cadien grinned. “Why don’t you come over here and see my most recent work?”

"Hm?" Neiya began with a tone that implied mellow interest at best, but still she was already halfway through the air when she uttered it, apparently fascinated enough to jump at the offer. "Is it something I've seen before?

“You could say that,” Cadien said, as he turned the easel toward her.

It was a painting of her. Not in her current form, but in her first one, hovering over an ocean with a coastline and a river in the far distance, clearly intended to resemble the time they first met.

Neiya slid her hands over Cadien's shoulder and clasped on to him as she watched the painting, allowing him due time to move the easel back as she hovered beside and behind him, anchored with a gentle grip. Her first real reaction was a simple breath, the goddess stirred to silence as her now golden gaze flitted frantically over the picture. "That seems like so long ago. Oh, Cadien." she sighed with a wistful breath.

“Such a simpler time, wasn’t it? Just the two of us. No concerns about other gods or the goings-on of mortals,” Cadien said, with a wistful tone of his own. “You taught me an important lesson that day.” Then he seemed almost remorseful. “One of my greatest regrets is that I never made it to your sanctum before the Separation. I would have liked to see it.”

Neiya offered a sorrowful stare at the painting, briefly lost in memory. "It wasn't anything special; a lake I made my own. It was peaceful though, despite the visitors. I was so primitive, then. Ruled by my emotions."

Cadien arched an eyebrow. “Primitive? Hardly. If anything, I found you to be beautiful, elegant, and calm.” He turned toward her and placed a hand on her cheek.

"Tsch. You charmer." Neiya offered, turning her own gaze on him in turn. "Do you prefer me like that, then? Lost in thought and sorrow?" The goddess began to shift under his hand, her face turning softer and paler, her eyes losing their golden color as her shape turned towards that of her base form.

“I simply don’t wish to see you dismiss who you used to be,” Cadien told her. “That is the woman I first fell in love with, after all.”

Neiya raised a shifting hand to clasp around his, moving it down from her cheek. "Treat me well, my love, and I shall be whomever you desire. I'm still in here. I'm trying to be more than a shrinking flower, wilting in the shadows."

“You are more than that. You always were,” he assured her, before leaning in for a kiss. Neiya pushed her own lips to his, her form rippling gently as her skin turned pale and her form changed entirely to the forlorn, horned goddess of the past.

She broke the kiss soon after, raising a languid finger to gesture at the painting. "Do I look like you remember?"

The God nodded, bringing a hand up to brush at a strand of her hair.

"Then keep painting. You have your model for as long as you need it." she continued, and drew a finger gently under his chin.

And with those words, Cadien raised his brush and went back to his task. “Perhaps you should try your hand at this?” he asked as he began putting the finishing touches on it.

Neiya released a quiet scoff, solemnly dismissive of the idea - even though she had watched Cadien's technique with intent. "I have never been much good with the creative. I only ever recreate, I feel. And even then... she sighed softly, and patted his shoulder.

“You judge yourself far too harshly, my dear. What of our Merelli? We created those together, and they are beautiful, are they not?”

A hint of a shadow of a smile played on her features, and she was forced to agree with an elegant nod. "You had a great hand in that, I think. I only change what is already there. The Neiyari, for example. Though I do enjoy how they developed…"

“It occurs to me that we don’t work together nearly as often as we should,” Cadien went on. “The Merelli are the only thing we’ve done together. That ought to change, I think.”

That seemed to catch the goddess' attention enough for her to reaffirm her vigil of Cadien, tilting her head slowly. "I agree, beloved, though I took the liberty of aiding your ah, cute offspring."

“Oh yes, I have been meaning to mention that,” he nodded. “Thank you for giving them your aid. That cloak seems to be serving Carn well, even if it did create a rift between him and Gibbou’s avatar - though I suppose that’s her fault for being so uncompromising. And your followers did agree to aid Brundt, so you have my gratitude for that as well.”

"Oh, they did? That's marvelous," Neiya intoned softly, bobbing her head briefly in a simple nod. "Mortals can be so fickle, I was worried I wouldn't be able to please you after our… talk about the city. Actually, on the matter of mortals. How often do they need to eat?"

“Well, that depends on the mortal,” Cadien said. “Why?”

Neiya ran a hand up to stroke a finger along her lowest horn, humming softly. "Ah, nothing special. A few mortals wandered into my realm and I want to make certain they do not suffer at random."

“Hm. Well, humans and merelli should typically eat two or three times a day. Some can survive on one meal, but in time that will take its toll. I still don’t know which mortals you’re dealing with, though. Perhaps we should go there after I finish, and you can show me?”

"That's a wonderful idea, my love. I don't think they're human. But you can see for yourself later." Neiya nodded quickly and lifted her hand to wave away the matter now that it had been resolved. "Did you have any particular ideas of what you wanted to do together?"

“No particular idea right now,” Cadien admitted. “Perhaps an order of warriors, that vanquishes evil in our names? Or maybe we could have our avatars work together to either teach or gift the mortals something? Or... perhaps we could just destroy some iskrill together? Hm. Do you have any ideas?”

"Iskrill… where are those again?" Neiya asked with a ponderous expression.

Cadien frowned at that. “Yamat’s abominations. I told you about them, long ago. Do you not remember? They’ve been slaughtering human and merelli alike.”

Neiya touched at her own cheek. "Oh, those. In the Highlands, no? Aveira is around that area. I could send her to cut a swathe through those abominations without much issue. We could make it our shared activity, if you want to put some of your mortals in or some such."

The God thought for a moment. “My own avatar is in the area. Perhaps they might work together? Mayhaps they’ll get along as well as we do,” he smirked.

"Perish the thought," the Love Goddess retorted with dry wit of her own, lips pursed ever so slightly. "I don't think Aveira was doing anything important anyway. But, ah, more importantly; how do you get this blue here?" Neiya drew her hand forward to point at the mixture of blue hues in the painting before her, overcome with a fickle thought after all.

Cadien smiled. “Well, one benefit of being a god is that I can simply conjure whatever colour or shade I wish into existence. But, if I were a lowly mortal…” he waved a hand and conjured forth a table with jars of paint on it, “...I would have to do this…”






Carn

&
Titania




The new armour was unlike any metal Carn had ever seen before. It was a dull grey, but not nearly as light as the sword he carried, or Titania herself.

The commotion had stirred the entire camp. Some men had heard the initial screams and thought they were being attacked, which had led to dozens of men running about in panic, and in some cases almost clashing with each other in the darkness. Then they had noticed the true source of it all, and had clustered in the center of the camp.

Carn had ordered them all back to their beds and their posts. Those encamped closest to the pile were ordered to move elsewhere, in preparation for when the pile inevitably fell. To his surprise, they had agreed without hesitation, leaving only the dozen or so guards that had been assigned to guard Titania in the first place. Then, he himself had gone back to bed. The armour would need to be sorted and distributed, but not in the dark. That would have to wait until morning.



“Lord Carnelian!”

Carn stirred, sitting up on the lumpy straw mattress. He had thought the events of the previous day might have been a dream, but the cloak which he was now using as a makeshift blanket proved otherwise. He rose to his feet, put the cloak on properly, and stepped outside.

Yarwick was there, along with a small group of warriors. “What is it?” Carn asked them.

“Armour fell over,” Yarwick replied. “Crushed tents and shelters. “Half the camp is already roused.”

“Gather everyone,” Carn ordered. “We need to see those suits distributed.”

Yarwick nodded. “I’ll see it done.”



The crowd that had formed had quickly become a mob, with some already pulling at the pile. They quickly got into fights, as men went for the same pieces, or got in each other’s way. Carn had Titania’s tent pulled down, but she remained on the table so she could witness everything. She needed to see rather than hear just how chaotic this army truly was.

For several long moments, Carn allowed the chaos to go on, even as Lothar, Yarwick, Ingrid, and a few others all shouted to restore order. Then, the moment one fight went too far, and a blade was drawn, he shouted. “Enough!”

The fighting stopped, and heads turned. “Everyone, back away!” he commanded. “Form four orderly lines, one on each side of the pile. Take a full set of armour, then go somewhere else to put it on. I’ll take off the hand of anyone who grabs more than they need!”

The warriors paused, exchanged glances with one another, and then grudgingly began to back away. The crowd shifted into four lines, as Carn had commanded, each going in a different direction. Chieftains and leaders hung off to the side, keeping a watchful eye to ensure nobody strayed. One by one, a man came forward from each line to grab a set of armour, before hurrying away from the collapsed pile.

The process moved quickly, though later on Carn began to see that some men with armour were seeking each other out, because the pieces they had chosen didn’t fit quite right. It was only then that they discovered that the armour was the same size, forcing most to wear armour that was ill-fitting. For an unfortunate few, the armour did not fit at all. Carn watched them with a sour expression.

”What? Dissatisfied?” came a metallic mutter.

“The armour doesn’t fit,” Carn replied.

”’The armour doesn’t fit’. What, did you expect me to know the exact sizes of your every soldier? You wanted armour; I gave you armour. I based my design on knowledge about the average size of a ‘human’ as accumulated over the millennia. If your warriors don’t fit the armour, they could do with losing or gaining some weight.”

“And how do you propose they do that before we reach Ketrefa? Do you expect them to become taller, or shorter, too?”

”Not my problem now, is it? After all, this is all -your- campaign. If your troops are outfitted wrongly, then it’s your responsibility as a commander to fix that, isn’t it?” There came a metallic hmph!

Carn glared at the armour. Meanwhile, men were beginning to recover items from the tents that had been crushed under the pile. Then, one shouted in alarm and began tugging on something. Carn observed from a distance, and then realized it was an arm. “By the gods…” he whispered, as others came to help the man pull the body free.

”Why, what’s happening?” mumbled the armour, only halfway interested.

Carn ignored her. “Is he alive?” he called out to Yarwick, who had approached the scene. Yarwick and two others then began to move the armour aside, allowing the body to be pulled free. The Chieftain of Thyma took one look at it, then back at Carn, and shook his head grimly.

Carn fell silent. “The pile fell on someone,” he said after several long moments, his voice devoid of emotion. “He’s dead.”

The armour was silent. ”What a shame. Death can strike anyone at any moment. It is the fate of all living beings. All we can do is make certain it won’t happen again.”

“...you don’t care, do you?” Carn asked quietly.

”Crying over the death of a soldier will leave you weeping for eternity. Soldiers die to protect the innocents; they fight for what is dear to them. Regardless of how they die, death is their fate. There are worse ways for a warrior to die than being crushed armour.”

“Armour conjured forth by a being they thought was going to help them,” Carn countered. “That man deserved better than that, I think.”

”I have helped you - I have given you the strongest armour in the land - full suits for almost everybody. Is your integrity really so faint that you would focus on one man’s death over the now-much more likely survival of thousands? Have you not the honour to be thankful?”

Carn gave a bitter chuckle at that. “I choose to spare Aurielle, because she might still be useful to us, and you go on about justice. I choose to keep this cloak, because it might be useful to us, but you want it burned simply because you don’t trust it. But when you get one of my men killed, now you go on about the greater good?” He shook his head. “Do you even know what honour is?”

”Auriëlle, a criminal, walking free is -not- for the ‘greater good’. She is a wildcard at best and a demoness at the worst. Your weakness in handling her shows your misunderstanding of righteousness; the cloak is a product of Neiya, the queen of demons, and destroying it -is- for the ‘greater good’. The failure to do so shows your broken sense of right; and to weep over the loss of one man when your whole army has been harnessed with the greatest plate in the land? You show nothing but childishness and lack of resolve! Honestly, why did I even choose you?”

“An easy thing, to judge people, isn’t it? To second-guess them when you’ve never seen life through their eyes?” Carn ignored her question. “You’ve never been hungry, have you? Your life has never been at risk, has it? Do you have family? If you do, have you seen them cut down before your very eyes? Have you ever been at someone else’s mercy? ” He shook his head. “I don’t think you have. The question is, why did I choose you? I didn’t have to pick you up. I could have left you with that merchant, or thrown you in a ditch somewhere. I’m not your slave, Titania. I’ve never been. I thought you’d understand that, considering it’s what we’re fighting to stop.”

The armour scoffed. ”Of all the stuck-up--! I have never once treated you like a slave! I have made demands, yes, but never with the expectation that these would not be compensated for! I even offered you a new cape to replace the one you would, oh so slavishly, have to toss away, because, I don’t know, it’s made by the incarnation of evil?!” She heaved some furious breaths. ”You know what? I was wrong about you - so wrong. I see it now. You’re not doing this to free the innocents of Ketrefa - this is an ambition of yours: your project, isn’t it?” She paused. ”Yes… Yes, no wonder Neiya would reach out to you.”

“And now you turn your paranoia on me,” Carn sighed. “Think what you want. I don’t care. Leading this army wasn’t even my idea. But if you won’t support me, then I might as well leave you behind.”

”Fine! I’ll find a better wearer - one whose heart outshines yours like the sun outshines a torch. They will become an invincible paladin of justice - something you could never be.”

“I pity whoever you find, then,” Carn said as he turned away. “Everyone! Pack up! It’s time to move!”






Dakari




Dakari smirked.

These past two decades had been nothing if not good for him. He had gathered allies, and led his people to victory. Elsewhere, he had heard that other Neiyari were having difficulty, but not him. He had carved out a section of the Luminant for himself, and one day, he hoped, the entire region would be his. He had kept faith in both Cadiri and Neiyara, as was owed, and that faith had been rewarded.

“I give praise to you, Cadiri and Neiyara,” Dakari had whispered during his morning prayer. “I have led my people to victory, destroyed my foes in battle, and held true to both my promises and my threats. All in your name. I will continue to do so, until the Luminant is mine.”

“No,” spoke a familiar voice, “you won’t.”

Dakari’s eyes widened. “What?”

“Grim news, I’m afraid,” Cadiri spoke apologetically. “Oraeliara has placed a curse upon you and your people. Never again shall your women bear children.”

The news struck him like an arrow. “She… did… what?” he whispered, slowly and quietly.

“You’ve all been made infertile. Without some other way to perpetuate your race, your extinction is all but assured.” The God spoke in a disapproving tone, clearly thinking Oraeliara had gone too far.

And she had. “That… that bitch…” Dakari cursed, as the severity of what had been done to his people began to sink in. “This… this cannot stand. You must reverse it!”

“Easier said than done,” Cadiri replied. “This happens to be her specialty. And I would thank you not to make demands of me.”

“I… forgive me, but my people have been sentenced to extinction!”

”A pity,” the God agreed. “Rather unsporting, too. You were doing so well for yourself, and to lose it all without a single battle fought…”

“No!” Dakari shouted, before lowering his voice. “I will not go quietly without a fight. If they have taken my people’s future, then I shall take theirs! I will sweep across the Luminant. I will burn their homes, slaughter their wives and children, make them all suffer. I will not stop until-”

“Enough,” Cadiri cut him off. “Think of the long-term. Even if you succeed, you will gain nothing from such a move.”

“Oraeliara removed the need to think in the long-term the moment she put that curse on my people!” Dakari argued. “We will die, and we will leave nothing behind. We can either die fighting, or we can die old and helpless.”

“And what if you didn’t die at all?” Cadiri asked.

The Neiyari Warleader blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I cannot restore your fertility, but I can take you and your people to a place where you will never age, and never want for anything. In exchange, all I ask is for you to pledge yourself to me further. I have a need for a flexible group of warriors, made for battle, who will go where I tell them to go and fight when I tell them to fight,” the God offered. “A fair deal, is it not?”

“What of Neiyara?” Dakari asked.

“You’ll still give worship to her, of course,” Cadiri said. “And I’m sure she will be pleased to know that her creations are being preserved."

Dakari considered the offer. It seemed cowardly, to leave the Luminant - his home - and his enemies behind, when there was still such a great wrong which needed to be righted. At the same time, however, Cadiri had been good for him, and had just offered his people eternal life. He also suspected that rejecting the god’s offer now would earn his ire, which was the last thing he needed right now. Dakari knew enough about power that an ‘offer’ or a ‘suggestion’ from someone of sufficient authority was as good as a command.

Besides, if they no longer needed to worry about death, that gave them all the time in the world to plan their revenge against Oraeliara.

“Very well,” he said. “I accept.”

“Good. Gather all those who wish to follow you, and tell me when you are ready to depart.”



In the end, only a little more than three hundred Neiyari of fighting age were willing to follow, along with their children. Many had refused, with some even going so far as to call him a coward, or to challenge his leadership, claiming they should be avenging this insult against them instead of running away. Those people were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly, for Dakari would brook no challenges, threats, or insults even now.

Others had simply quietly walked off, and Dakari had let them go. He would take only those who were truly loyal.

“Lord Cadiri,” he prayed, “we are ready.”

There was a long silence, and for a moment Dakari wondered if his prayer had even reached the god. Then there was a sharp crack!, as reality itself was torn open, and a glowing purple portal materialized before them.

Steeling himself, Dakari stepped through.



He emerged on a vast, flat, grassy island. In the distance across a sea, two other islands could be seen; one with a black imposing imposing fortress, and the other with a colourful village.

A tall white-haired figure stood before him, clad in golden armour, and when Dakari realized who it was, he quickly knelt. Those of his people who followed in behind him quickly did the same.

Cadiri simply waited patiently, as the Neiyari entered his realm. When all were in, the portal finally closed. “That’s all of you?” he asked. “Very good,” he said, without waiting for anyone to answer. “Hm. You’ll require lodgings, I suppose.” He waved his hand, and an entire town materialized behind them, with uniform but marvelous marble buildings. “Now then, why I brought you here. You are to be my warriors. When I require it, I will send you to Galbar to fight in my name and see my interests fulfilled. Between battles, you will spend your days here, alternating between luxuries and training. A generous offer, yes?”

Many of the Neiyari nodded. Cadien smiled. “Good! Now then, to business. You’ve proven yourselves capable warriors, but you need more discipline. More cohesion. You all favour different weapons and have varying amounts of armour. No more.”

The God of Perfection waved his hand, and a black arch sprouted from the ground in front of them. He pointed to one of the Neiyari. “You. Girl. Step through it.”

The Neiyari rose to her feet, and with a stoic demeanor she stepped through the portal. At once her clothing fading away, replaced by a full suit of midnight-black armour, complete with a helmet, and holes in the back for her wings. She stared at her new equipment in awe. “The rest of you,” Cadien ordered. “Go through it.”

And so they did, each one receiving their own custom suit of black armour. And they each alternated between looking reverently at their new armour and at Cadien himself.

“Very good,” the God smiled, once the last one had been equipped. “However, I suppose all that armour might make it harder for you to fly, won’t it? You’ll need a new way to move swiftly, I think.”

Another snap of his fingers, and hundreds of beasts materialized in the open field before them. They were a dark grey with black manes on the back of their neck, standing on four hooves, and each had a sharp golden horn jutting from their forehead. These creatures were made to be ridden, with leather saddles and stirrups that were part of their very body. Unlike most natural creatures, they did not look upon the Neiyari with any sort of fear.

“You will tame these beasts and learn to ride them,” the God instructed. “They will serve as your mounts. Only then will you be ready to go into battle.” His smile returned. “Now, then. Get to it.”








Carn

&
Titania




Carn took a deep breath.

This was not going to be a pleasant conversation. It could, perhaps, even be a dangerous one. But, it had to happen. He knew Neiya and Titania’s master were at odds with one another. He knew Titania wanted him to kill the woman he loved. He knew he was on thin ice with her already for refusing.

He had considered ways to avoid it, but he could think of nothing. He would need the cloak to retain his army’s loyalty - even on the way to this tent, he could see how the men and women of his army now looked at him differently. So, he would have to wear it. Titania would notice it, and question him about it. And he doubted he could lie to an avatar, even one as naive as she was.

“Stand aside,” he ordered the dozen warriors assigned to guard her. They complied immediately. He walked past them, and entered the small tent, which housed naught but a single metal table, with the armour piled atop it.

“Titania, we need to talk.”

The armour gave a characteristic metallic hum. ”What’s on your mind, wearer?”

Carn hesitated. “A new goddess has provided aid to our cause,” he said, after a moment.

The armour blinked metaphorically. ”Oh, is that so? A fortunate outcome for us. What is her name?”

He took a deep breath. “I have been led to believe that your creator is at odds with her.”

The armour grew silent for a split second. Her voice then turned from a cordial melody to a stern storm. ”What did she give us? Are her spies amongst our forces? Have you made any binding agreements with her?!”

The anger checked him, but only for a moment. “You already know who she is?”

”There is only one goddess whom my master holds with contempt in her heart - and she would naturally have motives to infiltrate a force destined to bring peace and safety to the enslaved and innocent of Ketrefa. You cannot trust her, wearer - she is nothing less than a demon - a deceiving, scheming demon!”

Carn blinked. “She’s the Goddess of Love, and on close terms with Cadien himself. Why should I not trust her?” The question was a test; in truth he did not fully trust the love goddess. He could not fully trust any god, if they could so easily contradict or clash with each other like this.

”’Love’ is a false mask - a mirage over her true self. She offers no love beyond the exact amount required to get what she wants. My master spoke once to Cadien about the unhealthy relationship they have - she has clearly been manipulating him from the start, just as she tries to manipulate us now! She brings nothing but war and carnage, trust my words!”

“But we are at war,” Carn pointed out. “She wishes to aid me. If Ketrefa is to fall, and we are to free the people it terrorizes, shouldn’t we accept all the help we can get?”

”There will be no people left to free if we side with her! She is the enemy of both the moon and sun - creator of the black-winged knights of death and destruction, and a viciously heartless vixen!” The armour panted angrily. ”I will not allow it! We cannot protect innocence if its very enemy is on our side.”

“We are not siding with her; she is siding with us,” Carn pointed out. “I know nothing of these ‘winged nights’ you speak of. Whatever they are, it is I who commands this army. Not Cadien, not Neiya, and not you. Rest assured, I have no intention of killing any who do not stand in our way.”

”Wearer, listen to me!”

“I have listened, and I have listened to Neiya as well. She made no demands of me, beyond that I should stay true to myself and never doubt my decisions. I have already accepted her aid, and I’ll not condemn myself or my warriors to the ire of a goddess by rejecting it now. We need allies, not enemies.”

The armour grasped for words. ”Y-you’ve accepted?”

Carn only nodded in response.

”Then… Then…” Her metallic breathing sped up. ”No, no, no, no… You cannot give her your loyalty! She is evil, wearer! Evil!”

“She never asked for my loyalty. And I suspect she might say the same about you.”

”Then turn down her aid at once! I will deal with any complications resulting from it - you have my word; we cannot allow ourselves to be at the mercy of her plans!”

“How can I turn down what has already been given to me?” Carn asked her.

Moisture formed on the armour. ”What -exactly- did she give you?”

“This cloak,” Carn answered.

Titania drew a quivering breath. ”Wearer… You mustn’t wear this into battle. It has surely been, been cursed with some sort of evil spell! Even wearing it now could be affecting your judgement!”

“If it truly is that harmful, then surely you’d be able to protect me from it?”

”I-... I am only armour, wearer - I can shrug off any physical and magical attack like a breeze… But the psychological is her specialty. I am powerless against it.”

“Then surely Cadien himself will intervene. He seems to know everything about me, anyway.”

”Cadien is--...” Titania slowed her words down. There came an anxious, metallic smack of lips. ”... I don’t think Cadien, either, is too knowledgeable about the workings of the mind. The shadow goddess have us both outmatched on that point. I must speak to my master - she knows some things about the machinations of the spirit and soul. Permit me this, I beg of you. We, we will purge the cloak of her influence and give you a new one - one meant for only the bravest and purest champions of justice!”

“And why not simply trust me, instead?” Carn questioned.

Titania sucked in through her metaphorical teeth. ”After our ‘chat’ about how to handle the wicked vixen of fire and destruction, I have decided that your senses of justice and righteousness may be compromised by your desires. I’m certain you can understand, right?”

“You claim my emotions and my desires compromise my sense of justice and duty,” Carn said. “And yet, from where I stand, it seems as if you would reject an ally and a gift to our cause, simply because of a rivalry your creator holds. Which one of us do you think is acting on emotion right now?”

”You cannot even begin to comprehend the evil she has committed! The falsehoods in her voice, her turncoat nature! Our conflict stems not from emotion, but from observed facts of reality - Neiya has no good in her heart; what she does brings death and decay to the land and to the innocent people on it. Accepting her aid is to let her into our midst!”

“Neiya has been worshipped for thousands of years,” Carn pointed out. “Crops still grow. Flowers still bloom. People still live. She cannot be that bad.”

”People have been protected for thousands of years by the mercy of the sun, moon and stars. If given her way, she would enslave the whole world and usher in an eternity of darkness and degeneracy.”

“Or so you claim,” Carn said. “She would no doubt have me believe something similar about you.”

Titania swallowed. ”Wearer, you’re not… Actually doubting me, right?”

“Why should I trust someone who will not trust me in return?” Carn asked her. “I knew Neiya and your master were at odds with one another. I did not have to tell you I spoke to her, or about the gift she gave to me. But I did. You say she can’t be trusted. She says you can’t be trusted. You can’t both be telling the truth, so it stands to reason that one of you is misleading me, and to be blunt, I have no way of telling who. So I’ll have to take a guess, and if I guess wrong, then that’ll just put me in a position to be manipulated further, won’t it?”

”But siding with her -is- wrong! Come on, do you think I, champion of justice, would deceive anyone? What good would come of that?”

“All I knew about your master before finding you was that she was the Goddess of the Moon, not Justice,” Carn argued. “I met two of her followers once. Shortly after my village was burned. They told me they had taken my brother to a safe place. Yet when I got there, I found out he had taken. By Ketrefa.”

Titania stuttered. ”Is… Is there a cult of devotees to Gibbou? I haven’t heard about this before. Well, save maybe for in… No, you don’t know where that is. What sort of followers were these?”

“Druids,” Carn answered. “Don’t remember their names. It was long ago, when I was still a boy.”

”Oh, druids! Wait, that’s not fair - they’re not -her- followers. The druidic pantheon has, what, eight different gods; besides, these are people, and you can hardly blame a goddess for the way her worshippers act.”

Carn thought for a moment. Not about Titania’s words, but what he was to say in response. “The point is, I have little reason to trust your word over Neiya’s. If you truly are a champion of justice, then prove it, and give Neiya a chance to do the same. We will see who truly stands where when the time comes.”

”No, I cannot accept this. I cannot be on the same side as -her- in a conflict. I won’t be an accomplice in a butchering!”

“Duty comes before emotion,” Carn reminded her. “You have pledged us your aid, and now you seek to withdraw it?”

The armour swallowed. ”My duty is to protect the innocent, but I cannot do so if we fight with Neiya’s support… But Ketrefa is a capital of slavery… But Neiya is the matron of evil… ARGH! Why did you have to do this?!” She growled metallically. ”Foolish mortals, always accepting this and that from entities they know nothing about.”

Carn frowned. “I’m not doing anything. It is you who seeks to force a decision on me. If you think Neiya is planning something nefarious, then your best chance to prevent it is to stay with me and keep a watchful eye.”

”Oh, you’re damned right, I’m staying. From now on, you won’t make a single decision involving any sort of divine gift or voice on your head without asking me first, is that clear? One wrong move will compromise this entire liberation - it’s clear you are too rash to be given the freedom I granted you before.” If she could, she would have shaken her head. ”So irresponsible.”

He furrowed his brow. “Freedom that you granted me?” he asked, somewhat incredulously. “Perhaps you have forgotten. I was the one who stood up and resisted Ketrefa. I was the one who was chosen to lead. I was the one who led men to victory. I’ll say it again: it is I who commands here. Not you, not Cadien, and not Neiya. Again, I did not have to tell you about her words or her gift, but I did. I will consult you, and share information with you, but do not try to force your will upon me.”

The armour growled. ”You should have come to me -before- you accepted anything from her. As soon as you heard about the feud between her and my master, you should have reacted - realised that she was evil. You have already proven yourself to be under pressure from your lust for the flaming vixen; now, you are under threat from your pride as a leader. Neiya already has her claws in you - this is how she consumes her prey! You shelter yourself to meditate and return to a state of purity - do this, and I will accept you once more as a paladin of justice. Until then, I deem you compromised.”

Carn blinked. “Meditate?”

”Yes. Sit still and think about the nature of your quest - why you wish to free the enslaved populace of Ketrefa; why you chose to take up this honourable mission. Help your mind find its original goal again - then you will be free from the sins seeking to draw you away from the right path.” Her voice felt almost satin-like.

“Hm?” Carn restrained a look of puzzlement. That was all it took? “Alright. Fine.”

The armour breathed a warm sigh. ”Good. Meditating on this will help you realise that Neiya is a dangerous foe - unthinkable as an ally - and make you see that we immediately should cut all ties with her. This, I am certain of.”

Now he frowned again. “I don’t quite see how thinking about ‘the nature of my quest’ will help, if you’re already telling me what conclusion I should reach.”

”Well, isn’t it obvious? The nature of your quest is that of liberation, and to free Ketrefa from the iron grasp of its rulers. When you, too, reach that conclusion, Neiya will, of course, stand out as a natural enemy of the cause. That is, unless I have misunderstood the purpose behind this campaign?”

“And if I decide that Neiya isn’t an enemy?” Carn asked her.

Titania shrugged. ”Then you will likely have reached the wrong conclusion, simple as that.”

“And you will leave?”

”You will come to the right conclusion eventually, wearer. The innocents come first. Above all, I protect -them-. So will you, if your heart is pure.”

“No,” Carn shook his head. “You protect the innocent, until Neiya decides to protect them too. You won’t even consider that might be what she, a Goddess of Love, truly wishes to do. Tell me, what aid have you provided, beyond building a wall that we didn’t need, and showering gold upon a merchant who would have scammed me of everything I owned?”

”... I protected the camp when your friend, the fire caster, sought to burn it to a crisp.”

“You protected yourself,” Carn countered. “She tried to burn you, and only you. Nobody was near enough to get hurt. You promised to give us armour, but you have yet to do so. When were you going to get around to that?”

”Oh-ho-ho-ho, is -that- how you remember it, hmm? Okay, alright. You want armour? Then, by Gibbou, you shall have armour.” There came a mighty quake from the centre of the camp. Shouting and confused screaming, followed by awed silence came thereafter.

Carn immediately rushed outside. In the centre of the camp, a mound as tall as a tower glistened in the afternoon sun - it was armour, iron armour - enough to harness everyone in the entire army. The quality was pristine - impurities were invisible. The only downside, it seemed, was that the tower would have to fall at some point to gain access to all of it.

”There’s your armour,” came a sour reply from the inside of the tent.

Carn, however, could only stare in shock. “It’s going to take all night to sort through this…” he muttered.








Carn

&




Carn had hoped his troubles would end when the army began moving.

He was wrong.

If anything, things only became more chaotic. Camps had to be set at sundown and torn down at sunrise. Some warbands took their time in doing so, while others were early and were forced to wait for the rest. Patrol and sentry duty then had to be distributed, to ensure they wouldn’t be taken by surprise. Chieftains and warbands clashed over camping sites, or their position in the army’s marching column. Feuds between the various leaders and tribes continued, with at least one duel and two brawls breaking out, over the course of only two days. Oh, and another would-be assassin had tried to take Carnelian’s life. That was getting irritating.

Then there was the matter of food. They would run out in a few days; before they reached the city. Carn knew what that meant. They were asking every local village they passed to donate, and while most were willing, they gave nothing that might compromise their own survival. Incidentally, that was not enough to feed two thousand men. Perhaps Titania could conjure forth some food. If not, they would have to start seizing it, and he knew the Avatar would not like that - even if it was necessary.

And, as this all went on, a more personal worry hung in the back of his mind: Aurielle. His advisors had been convinced to trust his judgement, but even so, he still wasn’t sure what that judgement should be. She’d expect to be welcome back with open arms; anything else she’d see as some sort of betrayal. Titania would expect an execution, and Yarwick an exile. The rest of the camp would have their own opinions, for many had seen the aftermath of her outburst, while others had heard wild rumours.

Then there was the last thing she had said to him, which hung in the back of his mind. Did he love this? The thought gave him a bitter chuckle. No, he didn’t.

He had loved leading the Redspears. A small force of thirty men. He had built up a camaraderie with those who followed him. Communication was easy, and issues were easily resolved. With two thousand men, both of those things seemed impossible. He could not speak directly to all two thousand under his command, and it could take the better part of a morning just to tour the entire camp. Then there were the incidents he was frequently called in to resolve.

No, he didn’t love it. He hated it. It had been months since he had even fought anything, not counting those assassins. It felt like he was withering away. Perhaps, when they made it to the city, his mood would change, but now? There was little joy he could take in any of this.

His thoughts shifted to the other thing she had said. ‘It was why I loved you,’ - a confession, finally, after all these years. A confession that had come far too late. Was it even true? If she had loved him, why had she left him in the first place? If she had loved him solely for the reasons she stated, then did that mean she no longer loved him? Some part of him didn’t trust her. Another part wished she had never returned, so he didn’t have to deal with any of this confusion.

But another part still desperately hoped he could make this work. He had never known love until he had met her, even if he hadn’t realized it at the time. And when she was gone he had felt empty. Lesser, somehow. He had filled that empty space with a mission he didn’t truly believe in, all on the vague promise of a fickle god that only occasionally decided to meddle in his life.

Until Aurielle returned, all he had wanted was his family. But if he could have both his family, and her… that was all he needed. And yet, Carn knew nobody ever received everything they wanted. Something always went wrong, and the possibility of him having both seemed far too good to be true.

So, what to do?

The question stewed in the back of his mind as the army marched onward. He had no answer, and he could not ask anyone in this camp for advice. So, when the army made camp that night, he turned to the only thing he could: prayer.




Carn knelt on the floor of his tent. It always felt awkward when he prayed. Supposedly, the gods heard every prayer, but it always felt like he was talking to nothing. He never knew if they were ignoring him, or if they simply disliked his wording, or if they never heard him at all. But, perhaps it was worth a shot.

“Neiya, Goddess of Love,” he whispered. “I humbly request your counsel.” Already he felt as if he had made a mistake.

A long silence followed, enough for that worry of a mistake to begin to sink in, and slowly replace itself with that flush of embarrassment that comes with doing something wrong. A soft wind brushed past his ear, rippling through his hair gently. Then came a deluge; a heat filled the air around him, pressing upon his breath like the hottest summer day. Pressure filled the back of his head, a dizzy spell falling into his mind making complex thought difficult. With it came a strange language that was far removed from his own, yet it’s meaning burrowed deep into his soul, conveying its own understanding. The words and voice were soothing, even a little tranquil. "Humility is a poor fit on such a compelling champion, my sweet. More alike the divine than you know. Yet you have called for another than he, reached across the cosmos, and I have come to your side. Speak of your worries, beloved, and I shall soothe them.”

The response was unexpected, but he was used to hearing disembodied voices within his head. “There is someone who I once loved,” he told her. “I still do, I think. But she has changed. She has committed an offense, and those I surround myself with want to see her die because of it.”

"My heart aches for you, Carnelian, son of Konrad and Lucy. You find yourself caught between heart and mind, trusting that neither would lie to you. Taking the counsel of mere men and-..." The voice broke off briefly, leaving him in heavy silence before it resumed. "...Servants of the divine with their own wicked goals. I ask you, my one and only; What do you want?"

No one had asked that question of him in a long time. “I want Aurielle. I want my brother. And I want my sisters. But I do not think I can have them all.”

"What stands in your way? Who denies a warlord and champion his own agency and will?" The voice spoke with husky, sad tones. "I can soothe your pain, my love, but is it of your own making? If your heart knows the path, doubt and the opinion of others are but cruel jailers, mercilessly enslaving your body to continue a path of pain. Auriëlle - the unleashed flame, destroyer of Teperia in my honor - your heart has chosen a dangerous lover. A fierce hatred burns within her; against authority and the divine. You cannot tame nor cage such fire, my love, but that does not mean it must be extinguished."

“And yet my supporters call for her head. If I lose them, then I am no warlord. Cadien himself wants her dead, if Lothar is to be believed.” He took a deep breath. “I… I won’t do it, but I am not blind to the consequences that may result from my decision. Without an army I can’t attack Ketrefa, and that was the condition for reuniting with my family.”

"So, to please others you must sacrifice half of yourself, and walk the path of pain and what could have been. Is this the best path your mind can conjure, my sweet? Do your supporters not have hearts of their own? Needs and desires? Not all battles are won with swords - fewer yet are won with words of reason." The voice continued with a sultry breath, a brush of wind touching at his ear and streaming through his hair. "Do your followers truly wish her dead, my dearest, or do they rage blindly because their hearts are not bound to your cause? To you? An army is a family. A relationship. They bicker and they want. If your heart desires strongly enough you will show your worth as the head of your family. In the matter of Cadien's will, I doubt my beloved would spread such a decree by another mortal. Remember that not all battles take place in the field, my sweet."

She paused for effect, sighing softly in his mind. It was like a rush of adrenaline and intoxicants at once, a wave of inviting and conflicting feelings. "If you slay your loved one on the word of another man, then you have proven how thoroughly he owns you. Are you so comfortable in your cage, Carnelian, that you will begin to twist your heart asunder?"

“No,” Carn objected, once the strange feelings had passed. “I already told you I wouldn’t do it. But the issues remain. If I cannot… ‘tame’ Aurielle,” he spoke the word ‘tame’ with distaste, “then I must instead ‘tame’ my supporters. But Titania is loyal to Gibbou first, and Lothar to Cadien. Yarwick is reasonable - too reasonable, and I cannot truly blame him for wanting Aurielle gone. Only Ingrid seems willing to put her full trust in my judgement.”

"Did you not desire to be a warlord? If a soldier cannot learn to love their leader, then they are enemies. As you spoke, my darling, they must be tamed. They must love the visionary - the champion - who brings a chance to enact their vengeance against a city that has caused so much pain." Invisible hands touched on his form, assailing his senses as wind brushed against his form comfortably. "If they love another before you, they will never do as you desire. The servant of… Gibbou… is proof of this. Yet the others are simply mortal. What makes their will greater than yours? You cling to notions of reason as though it will ever help you, but it is a dull blade at best. If they cannot want what you want, do you need them?"

Carn breathed deeply. “How?” he asked her. “How do I ensure their loyalty toward me comes before their loyalty toward the gods, or to each other?”

His breath was matched by one of the goddess resounding in his head, and another gust of wind brushing his skin and tousling his hair gently. "By speaking less from the mind, and more from the heart. You had kinship once, you must prove again that you are the warlord they desire. Take heart, Carnelian, your plea to me was a righteous choice. I see much of my beloved in you, and though this trial of the heart is one of your own making, I sympathize with the struggle that tears at your thoughts; the anxiety of seeing your loved ones slip from your fingers." The voice rang out wistfully, as the wind around him seemed to pick up. His clothes whipped and rippled as air currents caught around him, for a moment threatening to drown the camp in a whirlwind. Heavy and firm sensations pressed against his back, like needy hands firmly massaging him. A new material began to fall around his shoulders, a purple cloak of silk and fur weighing down gently on his form. "Stay true to yourself, my sweet, and others shall stay true to you. Doubt yourself, and see your fortunes slip away."

Carn glanced down at one shoulder, and then at the other, as he felt the new weight on his back. ‘Stay true to himself.’ That was all he had to do? He nodded. “Very well. Thank you for your gift, Neiya. But… earlier you mentioned ‘Servants of the divine’ with ‘wicked goals.’ Do you speak of Titania and Lothar?”

A brief silence lingered before the voice returned, colder than its previously sultry invitation. "Remember all that I have said, Carnelian. War is fought on more planes than the material, and each being that does not consider you their liege or lover is a potential enemy of the future. I know not if Titania is as wicked as its mistress, but it will never serve you."

“...I see. Do you and… Gibbou, have a history? Will Titania turn against me if she realizes you have aided me?”

"The moon goddess is as duplicitous as the summer rains, my sweet. Whatever you give her shall one day come to harm you." the voice warned with the same wistful tone as before.

Concerningly, that did not answer his question. He would have to be even more wary of the armour going forward - her principles already made her difficult to work with, but if those same principles were only a mask for something more sinister, then she was only more dangerous. “I understand,” he said, rising to his feet. “Thank you again.”

Another sigh escaped invisible lips, a touch of fingers unseen sliding under his chin briefly. "I shall follow your quest of the heart, my darling. The untamed flame burns bright, your desire must match its heat. Honor me, by heeding my words." the goddess concluded, and gave no more chance to speak. Almost immediately following her words, the air around Carn began to return to its calm chill. The pressure in the back of his head lifted at once, along with the sensation of touch. The goddess was gone.

Carn stood in silence, ruminating on her words. He glanced back down at his new cloak. Supposedly, this would make things easier. But in many ways, it had also introduced new struggles and dilemmas. Titania would question him on his piece of attire, and then there was the question if Neiya herself was telling the truth. After all, if one god could lie to him, why couldn’t another? But he couldn’t deny that Neiya’s words had been far more compelling.

In the meantime, he had a war to win, and an army to unite. With a swish of his cloak, he turned and walked off into the night.








Carn

&
Titania




“She must die, Carnelian.”

Carn and Lothar stared each other down, with only a table between them. “No,” Carn refused.

“Cadien demands it,” Lothar insisted. “She lashed out against an avatar, and she and her companions were somehow able to evade the sight of the divine. They cannot be here.”

“They’re not here,” Yarwick said, stepping into the tent with Ingrid beside him. “She’s gone. Can’t find her anywhere. A few say she left, and took dozens of men with her.”

The news of her departure struck Carn directly in the heart. He had seen her again for the first time in years, and once again… she was gone? She had declared her love for him - or at least, a love that she used to have - and said she would ‘prevent his army from killing each other’, but instead she had left?

Would she even return?

She had said she would return, when she first left him at Jalka. It had taken her years to fulfill that promise. She had made no such promise now. He reached into his pocket, and his hand closed around the ruby amulet. “Where did she go?” he asked.

Yarwick shrugged. “They say she went west,” Ingrid said. “Toward Ketrefa. No idea what she’s planning.”

Carn stared down at the table with uncertainty.

“We ought to hunt her down,” Ingrid went on. “She could be planning to join Ketrefa. Even if she isn’t, she might get captured.”

“She knows nothing that might help them,” Carn objected. “And I know her, she won’t let them take her alive.”

“So what do we do if she comes back?” Yarwick asked.

“I’ve said it already,” Lothar pitched in, “she must die.”

”I wholeheartedly agree!” shouted the armour from the corner of the tent. ”She is nothing short of evil - uncontrollable, uncaring evil. She has no place in this world, other than to function as a warning of what the vile desires do to a person’s mind.”

Lothar nodded. “The Avatar of Gibbou has spoken, and I can assure you that Cadien has as well. Why do you refuse?”

Carn looked up, and glared at him silently. True, Aurielle had been out of line, and true, he was angry at her for the way she had acted, and true, if it had been anyone else he would have agreed with Lothar, but... it was Aurielle. “My reasons are my own,” he said defiantly.

“Listen,” Yarwick said rather bluntly. “I don’t know what history you had with this girl, but she tried to destroy a divine avatar, and she could have burned half the camp down while doing so. Now if the tales are to be believed, she’s taken your men and fled without even asking permission. She’s dangerous. Spare her if you want, but don’t let her near this army. We can’t trust her, and if you just forgive everything she’s done you’ll only make yourself look weak.”

“Weak?” Carn’s glare turned on Yarwick. “If I was weak, I’d be agreeing with you all, wouldn’t I?” He shook his head. “I will not name her an enemy. If she is leaving, then we never have to worry about her again. If she is going to join Ketrefa, then she shall be dealt with on the battlefield. If she returns, then I shall hear her explanations, and then decide what to do with her. The matter will be settled, one way or another.”

Ingrid nodded reluctantly. “He’s right. We’re talking about punishing someone we currently have no means to punish.”

”No means? Have you forgotten who has graced you with her presence and aid?” One could practically hear the voice flex her metaphorical muscles. ”Put me on, wearer, and we will go deal with her like any other pest.”

Now Carn’s displeased look rounded on Titania. “She was right in front of you, and you couldn’t even see her,” he pointed out.

“Watch your tone,” Lothar rebuked. “But…” he began grudgingly. “He’s right. Her companions… when they joined her, both you and Lord Cadien somehow… lost sight of her. I’m not certain we can track her.”

”She is obviously in cahoots with some other god - an evil demon set on infiltrating your forces, all while remaining hidden from the divines that seek to aid you. I see this only as further proof that she needs to be exterminated. I could not see her, that is true - but you could, wearer; with your body and my power, you need only guide me in her direction and she will be no match for us. Together, we are unstoppable.”

“If there is an evil force protecting her, I suspect the work of the Masked Devil,” Lothar suggested.

“We have no way of knowing that,” Carn objected. “I know her, and she’s not the type to work with any god.”

“If she’s a godless heathen who has somehow devised a way to hide herself from gods, then that doesn’t make her any less dangerous.”

“ENOUGH!” Carn slammed a fist against the table, catching everyone off-guard. “I command here, and I shall hear no more of it. There are more pressing matters that demand our attention.”

”What, wearer, can be more pressing than a saboteur and a spy? If she is under influence of an adversarial god, perhaps one who also has ties to this city Ketrefa, then we cannot allow her to dig in her roots among your soldiers! Planning an assault is useless if those entrusted to carry it out are without discipline and fidelity.”

“That problem is not exclusive to Aurielle,” Carn grit his teeth. “Only a couple nights ago, a man in this camp tried to murder me. He thought Ketrefa would reward him if he brought them my head. Then, there’s the fact that half the chieftains who pledged themselves to me all seem to harbour some sort of grudge or feud with each other.” He looked up at Ingrid. “How many men are with us now?”

Ingrid shrugged. “More than two thousand, I think? Impossible to count.”

“More than two thousand,” Carn repeated. “They won’t catch up to her. If you want to hunt her down, we’ll have to go by ourselves if we have any hope of catching up. Which means leaving these two thousand men behind, when we’re the only thing holding them together.” He shook his head. “We can’t do that. She’s gone, and we will only catch up with her if she allows it. We have to focus on the people who are still with us.”

Titania growled metallically. ”How can you even consider letting her walk free? Is your sense of justice this weak? Your sense of law, of order?”

Carn growled back. “I refuse to pursue her for the same reason I don’t just walk into Ketrefa and fight my way through the city singlehandedly: I can’t. I refuse for the same reason that you haven’t struck down every wrongdoer in the world already: you can’t. We can only deal with the problems that are in front of us, and some are more pressing than others.”

”I see it is not me who is blind, but my wearer - together, we can solve all these problems without issue, yet your refusal to wear me puts us all at a disadvantage…” She clicked her tongue. ”Perhaps I have chosen poorly.”

Lothar bowed his head. “Please forgive Carnelian’s crude tone,” he pleaded. “He-”

“No,” Carn cut him off. “You want me to wear you? Fine. Then we will address my army and get them moving. Toward Ketrefa, and toward Aurielle. If we somehow catch up to her then I will decide what to do with her then. If not, then we cannot let her distract us from our true goal: we need to reach Ketrefa. Every day we delay is another day that the innocents enslaved inside suffer. Is that not so?”

Titania snarled. ”You will decide what we do with her now - if the hour comes and you hesitate, the quality of your character will be clear. Swear you will end her life if we catch her, and you may wear me. If you refuse, then…” The armour paused. ”... Then the one known as Lothar will wear me instead.”

Lothar blinked. “What?”

Carn frowned. “If it turns out that Aurielle left with the intention of abandoning us or joining our enemies, then I will… end her. But if I find out otherwise, that will change my decision.”

”A deserter is a deserter - she was not sent away; she left - that makes her a deserter. If you cannot make an example of her, then what is to stop your other two thousand men from doing the same? Many of them have families, innocent families who now are without protectors because they all have joined your cause. Enslaved, the innocents of Ketrefa may be, but they will not be freed if their saviour cannot distinguish emotion from duty. Decide now - no conditions.”

“She swore no oaths. She made no promises. She cannot be a deserter,” Carn argued. “And I have made my decision. Life is not black and white. I’ll not commit myself to a judgement when I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision - that’s not justice.” These were not his true beliefs; he was simply trying to talk her down. “When I find out her intentions, I will do what duty requires.”

”Pfft. If you believed she hadn’t at least made some kind of hint that she would be supporting us, you wouldn’t have made that condition in the first place. Admit it, wearer - you have feelings in this matter and cannot bring yourself to do what you must. Man known as Lothar, you will switch your diet to eggs, meat and bread and commence working out three times per day starting now, is that clear?”

“No,” Lothar blurted out. “Your holiness, I beg you to reconsider. Whatever failings Carnelian possesses, I am even less worthy than he. He is the son and champion of Cadien; he was chosen for a reason. I would request that you have faith in Cadien’s judgement.”

Titania was quiet for a minute or so. Then she offered a long, guttural groan. ”... Given my master’s relationship with the mighty Cadien, I would be insolent to start conflicts on that front…” Her invisible eyes switched over to Carn again. ”You should treasure your companions, wearer - you’ll find few as dedicated to your god and your cause.”

“I suppose you’re right…” Carn nodded reluctantly. It was times like this when he wished he was around someone who shared Aurielle’s jadedness. He reached for the helmet. “Come. We need to get this army on the move.”

”Indeed. Take us away, wearer.”



Messengers were sent, and the chieftains were gathered. In the center of camp they stood before Carnelian, who was clad in Titania, with his advisors at his side. “For the past few days we have been gathering strength!” he declared. “But now, it is time we move! For while we ready ourselves, Ketrefa does not sit idle. We must take the fight to them, before they can strike at us. Now, ready your men. We depart tomorrow.”






Brundt




Brundt was out of his depth.

He had never managed an army before. He had never even led a warband. He had been trained in tactics and combat as part of his upbringing, but in truth he had no real experience. Some part of him wished that he had never lifted the hammer. Or that he had refused the position. Thousands of lives weighed on him, and he was not ready. Now he had no choice but to try his best.

At least it wasn’t all bad. Milos had been the son of a Lord-Captain, and had been taught logistics out of necessity. He was of great help in making sense of the previous Lord-Captain’s notes and records, as well as advice in general.

Brundt had also spoken to the men who had returned from Abbas’s ill-fated endeavour. The stories they told were conflicting, but troubling either way. Some claimed they had been set upon by only a handful of men, but every shot had found its mark, and every shot had been lethal. Others claimed they had been surrounded by a force of hundreds. The only constant was the involvement of a man named ‘Carnelian’, who allowed them to surrender on the condition that they would never take up arms against him again.

It was a dangerous thing, to break an oath. But even if they were willing to risk Tekret’s wrath, Brundt looked into their eyes and knew nothing could compel them to risk Carnelian’s.

Such a strange name…

Ultimately, he realized he could not launch another offensive. They only had a few weeks of autumn left. That was not enough time to replenish their losses, yet alone launch a campaign. Besides, how could he be sure whatever host he raised wouldn’t be crushed as the first one had? He knew not what he was dealing with. Was it magic, or the blessing of a god? Magic, they could counter. The blessing of a god would be hard.

So in the end, they had to opt for what many would perceive as inaction. The war must resume in the Spring. And if he intended to recruit from the surrounding villages, he would need to wait until planting season was over. The best he could do was send some scouts into the countryside, to hopefully keep watch for any enemy activity.

So with a resigned sigh, Brundt prepared himself for the long winter that lay ahead.



Autumn gave way winter, and as expected, nobles were already defying his authority; the Cult in particular.

The city had been placed under a Regency Council, with Brundt, Varsilis, and Trehe being included on it, but at least one of the members was sympathetic to the Cult, and he proved to be a thorn in their side when it came to actually governing the city.

As for Brundt, his ability to command the army was being thwarted in several small ways. Orders were lost or ignored. Supplies were delayed or withheld. Commoners took to the streets in protest of the higher food prices, even though such a thing occurred every winter. The guard did their best to investigate it, and from time to time someone was arrested, but they found nothing to directly implicate the cult’s inner circle.



Brundt sighed with frustration. He sat at the Lord-Captain’s desk. He was one of the most powerful men in the city, but he felt powerless. All he could do was receive reports, or inspect the army and its walls. Normally his job would have been to coordinate raids as well, but in the midst of winter such efforts were pointless. The enemy would not march in the winter, for the same reason as Brundt. But when spring came, they would come, and he had to be ready.

The soldiers of Ketrefa’s army seemed loyal enough. Most of those who had been converted into the cult had died following Abbas. Both the House of Perfection and the House of Order had been doing everything in their power to spin a narrative that Abbas’s defeat was due to his lack of faith in the Five. A soldier had to pray to Cadien for strength and Tekret for discipline. Going into battle with the favour of only one goddess, and a love goddess at death, had been foolhardy, they had said.

As a result, even the soldier-cultists who hadn’t been present at the battle had begun to distance themselves from the cult, and discard their amulets. The common soldiery, or at least most of it, was his.

The army’s officers were another problem. They were in a similar position to the soldiery, surprisingly enough. Many were faithful men and women, who held the gods close at heart - all five of them. There had once been a considerable portion of cultists among their ranks, but again, most had been killed in the battle, for Abbas had prioritized bringing leaders he could trust. As far as religion went, they at least carried the same beliefs as Brundt.

That didn’t mean they were all confident in him, however. He was, as they had called him for years, an outsider. A barbarian. A savage. The majority had grudgingly accepted him, since he had the patronage of both religious orders, had been educated as a noble, and bore the name of a house once known for martial prowess. But he knew that at least some of them secretly despised him, and they were the source of some of his frustrations.

The bulk of his frustrations came from the civilians under the cult’s yoke.

But, he had the army. It would be a simple enough act, to march two hundred men into the Court of Flames and arrest all the nobles who were rumoured to be involved. The cultists who infested the army’s ranks might be able to make themselves a nuisance, but being a nuisance would not be enough to thwart such a force.

The act itself would be simple, but the consequences would be not. Their followers would rise up, and the city would burn. The streets would run red with blood, and Brundt did not wish to order the slaughter of misguided slaves and citizens. Especially when there were many who only joined because they had valid misgivings with the status quo. And it would leave the city weaker, to boot.

That left one other option. Varsilis would not like it, but if he was to lead the city, then he would need the entire city united behind him. He had to make a deal.

So, he called an aide, wrote a message, and sent it off. He doubted they would agree to a meeting, but it was worth an attempt.

Two days later, a messenger from the office of magistrate Matan from the lower quarters came with a missive; the Lord-Captain was invited to the estate of House Anestra, a minor and unimportant branch house of the defunct Akellos family - stricken from notice after the passing of their patriarch and sole living member. Though details were sparse, the invitation was for 'matters of the clergy'. The implications were clear.

Brundt considered the invitation for a moment. It was a risk, and yet, one side would have to take a risk in order for a meeting like this to occur. Then he thought about it further, and decided that if it was some sort of trap, he could likely fight his way out if needed. He was, after all, the strongest man in the city, if not the entire highlands, and mundane blades could not pierce his skin.

So, with an escort of a dozen men, he set out.

The path to the estate brought him through the worst of what the cult had to offer, barricaded and dilapidated districts in total disarray. Hungry and worried citizens were clashing with guards and each other, and houses were likewise quickly blockaded when he made his way past. He had seen it before - but recent events were like a spark of flame to tinder. Peasants clamoured for help and cursed him and his men with equal measure, demanded the aid of the gods, or loudly decried all but Neiya. Worse, the rowdy crowds seemed to incense each other, and as soon as he stepped foot in a cult-aligned district, the guards were few and far between at best. Destruction, littering, defacing. It had become the norm of much of Ketrefa, under the cult's guidance.

That all changed when he found himself wandering into the old Water Gardens, a small district where many low-rank nobles made their home, named for it's once many beautiful riverside villas. It was now firmly in Cult territory on all sides, yet none of the devastation seemed to have reached it. Well-tended houses, flocks of active servants working as though nothing had changed. On each of the houses he passed sat a single emblem above the entrance - the heart of Neiya.

So too with the Anestra estate, a modest villa at the end of a dirt road with two well-dressed men stood guard outside. Brundt recognized their dress from another time, they wore the same outfits as the men and women who had barred entrance for the ceremony during his last visit to a cult district.

Brundt approached the front entrance with his men behind him. “I am Lord-Captain Brundt,” he said in an authoritative tone. “I have been invited here for a meeting.” The two men said nothing, simply taking a step to the side. Their eyes fell on his escort, not all of whom seemed pleased to fall under scrutiny. Again, nothing was said, allowing Brundt entry to the estate itself. His guards remained behind, with Gelos leading them.

The Anestra estate was an ode to a bygone time in all ways, with art and heraldry lining the walls that many seemed to have lost an appetite for in the chaotic decades past. Hundreds of religious artifacts were pinned to a silken sheet, as if to put them on immediate display when one entered. The sheet itself was stained with an expensive blue. On closer inspection, none of the symbology appeared to belong to Neiya - though Brundt found himself looking at a whole plethora of lost Cadien amulets, staves, and miscellaneous artifacts. Two servants conversed at the end of a small water feature, their conversation quieting when the tall man entered. Wordlessly, a fair young woman stood up, smiled at him, and gestured further into the estate.

Brundt carried on, frowning at the clearly-stolen artifacts. Perhaps he should try negotiating for their return, if possible. That would help soften the reactions of his supporters if he did somehow come to an agreement today.

Carried past further relics of the city as he swung through hallways filled with liberated artifacts and artworks. Finally, he found himself in a lounging room. It was lavishly decorated, fit for a room in the royal family's home, with pillows and soft silk spread on almost every conceivable surface. Centered in the room was a woman, at least a decade his senior by Brundts estimate. She wore a thinly woven blue gown that left little to the imagination, and rose when he entered the room. "Ah, the esteemed Lord-Captain. Welcome to my humble abode, I am Mira Anestra, the heiress of my father's estate." She posited with a pleasant tone and extended her hand languidly.

Brundt took the offered hand and kissed it, as was the custom. “Do you know why I am here?” he asked her.

The woman pushed a lock of brown hair from her face and smiled, gesturing for him to sit soon after. "It's good manners to come when invited," she professed. "Would you like something to eat or drink while we talk, my lord?"

“That won’t be necessary, my lady,” Brundt answered. “I’d prefer to get to business.”

Mira sighed softly, but maintained a gentle smile. “As you wish, my lord. Please, speak your piece. This is a safe haven for all.” she gave before gently tugging at her gown and sliding back down on the pillows from whence she came.

Brundt’s gaze couldn’t help but drift downward as she tugged at her gown, but he quickly corrected it, and found a seat. “I’m here to talk about the war,” he said. “More specifically, your people’s contributions to it, or lack thereof.”

She scoffed quietly, a small smile plied onto her features. “And what is it you want ‘my people’ to do, my lord? We’re simply faithfuls making a life for ourselves in this chaotic world. Have you felt the Goddess love?”

“I am the Champion of Cadien,” Brundt reminded her. “But I hold all gods in equal esteem.”

Mira offered a soft chuckle, running her hands up to stream through her hair before tilting her head to cast it backwards, eyes on Brundt. "That's not something I think is possible, my lord, but I respect your choice to believe so." She mused politely, before lifting her fingers to wave across the room. The young woman from before rushed across the room with two cups and an amphora. She began to pour what appeared to be wine as Mira continued to speak. "Once you have felt the love of the Goddess, it is impossible to recognize that another could be as great."

Brundt studied her expression carefully. “I’m not so certain of that.” He touched his fingers to his scarred cheek. “What I do know, is that I was rescued from a fire by Evandra. I was healed by worshipers of Gibbou, I was named the Champion of Cadien by the House of Perfection, and I was supported by Tekret’s House of Order. Why dedicate myself to one deity when I have received the aid of multiple?”

"To me," she began, wafting away the wine girl to reach for a filled cup. "It sounds like only Evandra has truly come to your aid. How is that different from what we do in the city?" Mira smiled at him gracefully, and tilted the cup gently in his direction, offering it to him with both hands.

Brundt accepted the cup and tilted it against his mouth, but he did not allow the liquid to pass his lips. “It is different,” he insisted. “The Houses of Perfection and Order do not flout the city’s laws. They do not vandalize districts or turn them against the other gods. They do not resist the commands of the Lord-Captain as an army rises to destroy all that they hold dear.”

Mira smiled warmly at him and lowered her hands to elegantly sweep up the other cup. She nestled it in her lap, bunching up her gown gently. "We do not do those things either, my lord. You operate with the assumption that we do anything. There is no culprit here. No order to hold accountable. We are just faithful men and women spreading the word of the Goddess." She sighed softly. "You came here of your own volition. Where is the vandalism here? The truth is that when unfettered by material needs, people do what they wish, rather than what their lord wishes."

“And the people have been allowed to do what they wish for far too long,” Brundt told her, whilst fighting to maintain eye contact. “If this is occurring because you are doing nothing, then I would advise that you do something. Those people will not realize the danger until it is too late, and if our city falls, then both your life and theirs will be destroyed.”

"I know many of my compatriots are intending to depart. Perhaps with the right incentives, they could be persuaded to take a stand." She offered without shame, lifting her cup to take a short sip. Her gaze fixed on Brundt over the rim, and it lingered there to mask her features. "If as you say, my lord, you are unable to have the people heed you, perhaps you require assistance."

“Leave in the winter,” Brundt began, finally taking a sip of his own cup, “and most of them will freeze to death. Leave in the spring, and there are still dangers - trolls, and the risk that Carnelian’s army will catch them. They’ll be without friends, for Ketrefa isn’t particularly beloved these days, and they’ll have only what they can carry. Even if they do survive, whatever life they live won’t be safe, or comfortable. But if they stay here, and contribute to the city’s defense, they can keep their lives and their wealth. What more incentive do they need?”

Mira lowered her cup, smiling a Brundt with a trained elegance. "These are trials of the body, Lord-Captain. I do not fault you for locking yourself into such a dungeon of thought - you are a champion of the body, after all," she replied demurely, her own gaze travelling over his features before returning to meet his eyes. "My kin have shorn such needs, as long as our spirit is sated. They want a house of worship."

Brundt raised an eyebrow. “Do you not have such places already?”

"Only what other clergy have abandoned in these trying times. The worship of the Goddess represented by the old men and women at the Temple of Love does not align with the true nature or meaning of being one with Her. As such, it won't do for us of the true faith to wander their flecked halls." Mira explained, absentmindedly drawing a ring with a finger by her collarbones. "But perhaps if we were allowed to use, say, the old Citadel chambers by the palace…"

Brundt considered the proposal. In truth, it was not technically within his power to grant, but he could perhaps make it a reality if he pushed hard enough. “If I were to agree to this,” he said guardedly. “I would need certain assurances in return.”

"Let me assure you, Lord-Captain. I am fully at your disposal." Mira gave in turn, smiling at him still as her cup lifted to her lips once more.

Brundt wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that smile. “The attacks against guards, soldiers, and preachers must end. The thefts of religious artifacts, and the defacements of temples, must end. And I’ll need you to convince your people to join the militias and the army; to contribute to the city’s defense. If you do this, then there can be mutual tolerance between our two faiths.”

She watched him for a time, making a point of slowly drinking from her cup as if to afford herself natural space to think. When the cup came down, she gently rubbed her lips together. "Given our rightful space, I can promise none of my brethren shall call for the defilement of the city in these trying times. And we can call for the citizens to take up arms, but they must be cared for by the city. Food, weapons." She concluded with a diplomatic tone. "And we would like an official advisor in your council."

“Those terms seem agreeable enough,” Brundt nodded slowly. “So long as your people pay the taxes they owe, providing rations and weaponry should not bring much difficulty. So, do we have an agreement?”

"I agree to your terms, Lord-Captain. It shall be my foremost mission to inspire my kin with your intent," she extended a hand for him languidly across the seat of pillows. "I've no doubt that together we shall change the path of Ketrefa forever. For the survival and flourishing of this majestic city."

Brundt took the hand and kissed it. Then, he raised his glass. “To survival,” he agreed.

She offered him a beaming smile, lifting her own in response. "With the aid of the Goddess, anything is possible. Keep that in mind, Lord-Captain, when all this settles."

Brundt nodded in response. “Now, is there anything else or shall I be on my way?”

"Well, Lord-Captain, it's not often I keep such distinguished guests. And judging from what little I know of you-... you don't play houseguest all that often." Mira professed politely. "I was hoping we'd soothe each other's souls in these troubled times. Get to know each other. We may yet end up working together closely, after all." Already her hand lifted to wave over the young woman with a pitcher, and the attendant danced over the pillows gingerly to begin another pour.

“Not many nobles are willing to host a disfigured barbarian,” Brundt pointed out, with some bitterness, “regardless of what titles he holds.”

Mira shifted closer on the pillow-covered floor, settling her cup next to his. Her hand extended once more, this time to place on his chest with confident but graceful motion. "Do not mistake me for a common noble, my lord; a thief of wealth and delinquent administrator. You'll find no such misplaced inhumanity in my household - or those of my kin. All are equal before the Goddess. Permitted to experience and enjoy in her vigil."

Brundt considered the offer. He still did not trust these people, yet he had made an alliance with them, so he had to at least pretend to be polite, just as they pretended to tolerate him. “Very well. I suppose I can stay for a little longer. How do you propose we soothe each other?”

"Well - perhaps you'd stay for dinner. Sample what we have to offer; it's probably not what you're used to living in your fortress of wealth," She mused with a small smirk. "But until then, we could simply get to know each other." Mira continued quietly, and her free hand tugged gently at the neckline of her gown, dragging a shoulder free slowly.

Brundt’s eyes widened slightly as he realized what was happening. “I… don’t think that’s…” he began nervously, his voice trailing off.

"Did I misread your gaze, my lord?" Mira queried softly, her eyes fixed on him with a half-lidded demure expression. Her hand moved from his chest, slowly closing around his wrist. "I am but a humble resident of the city," she continued as she made a move to guide his own hand towards her. "I truly am at your full disposal. Let a simple servant of the Goddess care for you."

Brundt could have easily torn his hand from her grip, and he knew that he should, but he didn’t. He tensed slightly when his palm made contact with her, and he considered the implications of her offer. This… had to be some sort of trick. Some sort of manipulation. Did she think that doing this would make him more likely to listen to her? Even he could see through that. And yet… she thought it would work. And, if he played along, she would think it was working. Perhaps underestimate him, thinking he was already under her thumb. And surely that could only be an advantage?

He gave her a nod. Yes, that’s why he was doing this, he lied to himself. A sacrifice, for the greater good. Nothing more.

A warm smile flushed over the older woman’s features, and without looking away from him, she raised her voice to proffer a simple “Leave us” to the attendant still lounging around. Her hand brushed against his clothes again, demure and teasing after her own guiding. Mira drew herself against him slowly, lips pursing as she shifted upwards to push her face towards his.






Cadien




CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

Cadien stood in one of the new rooms of Meliorem, a blacksmith hammer in his hand, and an anvil in front of him. Smithing. His avatar's first host had been a smith. Now, the God of Perfection was trying his own hand at it.

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!



Hours later, the work was finished. The statue of a man stood before him, tall and made out of bronze. The God smiled, and then reached into his soul, tearing a tiny sliver off as he had decades before. With the sliver in hand, he thrust it into the statue's chest. Power coursed through it, and then its metal eyelids opened, to reveal glowing amethysts beneath.

Cadien smiled. "Your name is Kharros. Do you know your purpose?"

The Statue nodded. "I do, master."

With a wave of his hand, Cadien opened a portal. "Good. See to it."





Carnelian




Carnelian had set out from Thyma with a force of twenty.

Now, he returned with nearly sixty.

As they entered the village, they were looked upon with a mixture of surprise, relief, and confusion. Many had assumed he would not return, either because he had been killed in battle or because he was actually abandoning them. Instead, he and his men had returned in high spirits, with reinforcements. But surely he hadn’t scored a victory?

And yet, he did. “The Ketrefans have been beaten!” he announced in the village square. The crowd - mostly consisting of the warriors he had brought back - cheered in response. Lothat stepped out of the temple and smiled. Once the cheers died down, Carnelian continued speaking. “For every man we lost, we killed twenty in return! Cadien was watching over us. But do not rest easy. The war is still not won, and it will not end until Ketrefa falls. In the meantime, we must gather our strength, and grow our numbers. Next time we face them, they will still be recovering, while we will be stronger than ever!”

“Cadien’s Chosen has spoken!” Lothar declared. “Keep training. Keep working. Everyone must contribute, if we are to win our freedom!”




“Alright…” Carnelian breathed, standing in the chieftain’s longhouse. Lothar, Ingrid, and Yarwick were present, as was Titania, who was neatly laid out on a table. “What next?”

Yarwick frowned. “You won a great victory, at small cost. Whatever you did, do it again, until all of them are dead.”

Carnelian sighed. “It’s not that simple. I only won because Cadien gave us a blessing, and that was only temporary. We don’t know if he’ll give it again.”

“You are his champion, are you not?” Ingrid questioned rhetorically. “Pray to him, and ask.”

Lothar shook his head. “The God of Perfection watches us always, but he answers us rarely. He has given us his aid, but he will not win every battle for us. He does not wish for us to become dependent. I dare say, he may now expect us to win our next battle without his intervention.”

“Besides,” Carnelian shrugged. “I already tried praying, and there was no response.”

“If Cadien does not offer us his guidance, it is because we do not need it,” Lothar said simply. “As Yarwick said, you have won a great victory. By now, every village surrounding Ketrefa will have heard of it. A great host was murdering and pillaging it way through the countryside, and you slew it. The news will rouse the faithful, and all we must do is seek them out… if they don’t seek us out first. Come spring we will have a mighty host, larger than any that has ever been raised.”

Yarwick frowned. “If Cadien does not aid us… we’ve all heard the stories. Dagmar the Defiant. Helga the Butcher. Lesnar Leonheart. Each one tried to fight Ketrefa in the past. Each one thought they had the mightiest army ever raised. And each one was all defeated.”

“They were not Cadien’s Champions,” Lothar countered. “And you forget the boons that have been bestowed upon us already. Even if Cadien does not directly intervene, we still have what he has already given us.” He nodded toward the sword sheathed at Carnelian’s belt.

”You shall have all the aid you need.” Titania’s voice was as firm as the steel in her plates. ”You are the protectors of the innocent who have been molested at the hands of this foe Ketrefa. This earns you the favour of me - Titania!” Her impossible grin was palpable.

“What sort of aid can you provide?” Carnelian asked her.

The armour flexed metaphorically. ”Whatever you need in terms of armour - by Gibbou, you shall have it! Nothing shall stop the saviours of the innocents from their mission to defend those that cannot defend themselves!” There came a pause. ”For that’s what you’re doing, right?”

“Aye, that’s what we’re doing,” Yarwick nodded.

“Those bastards will rue every raid they’ve ever sent,” Ingrid vowed.

Carnelian, meanwhile, had only nodded slightly.

”Then all is as it should be. The Ketrefan despots will be dethroned, and their reign of terror shall come to an end! Wearer, put me on! We march at first light!”

Carnelian blinked in surprise. “Now is not the time to march,” he said. “It’s nearly winter. We’ll have to wait until spring.”

“We won’t be standing idle, though,” Lothar said. “While our forces ready themselves here, we must travel the land, spread the word of our victory, and seek out new allies.”

The armour stared blankly. ”Noted. Then we shall march at first light - to the surrounding villages to garner support! All part of the great quest to free the Highland’s people from the wicked grasp of Ketrefa!” She sounded a triumphant ‘hoo-hah!’

“Indeed,” Carn said wearily. He looked out the window, where warriors and villagers alike celebrated the victory. “First light, then.”






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