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Cadien

&
Neiya




Cadien drummed his fingers on his throne. Something wasn’t right. It had been far, far too long since Neiya had last visited. Had he somehow offended her in their last interaction? Was she distracted? Had she lost interest in him?

He shook that last thought off. Nonsense. Nobody could ever lose interest in him.

Still, it would probably be best if he checked up on her. So, the God rose to his feet and strode toward the door made of rotten and dead wood, pushed it open, and stepped foot into Neiya’s realm.

The change struck him immediately. The once wide open and desolate riverlands were nowhere to be seen. Instead Cadien found himself staring at a cliff face, extending far up into the sky. Stone and gravel crushed underfoot as he walked in, and it quickly became clear his door was now - alongside the ever-shimmering entrance to Antiquity - located on a precipice halfway down a ravine. There was enough room to walk around, though any group would struggle to stand comfortably without daring the edge. Furthermore, even getting between the two entrances required some acrobatics; the two precipices were separated by a good ten feet chasm. No problem for a God under normal circumstances, surely. Far below ran a river not unlike the one that had once featured so prominently in her realm. Now it looked like a thin line snaking through an impossibly distant crevasse.

Cadien had let out a simple approving “hm,” upon seeing the change in his surroundings, followed by a disapproving “hmmmmm” upon seeing how close his door was to the portal to Antiquity. He would have to talk to Neiya about that. But first, he would have to find her.

So, the God leapt off the edge, and transformed. His legs merged together into a tail, a second pair of arms grew from his torso, wings sprouted from his back, and horns jutted from his head resembling a crown. His skin turned purple, and his body grew in size. He started beating his wings as he fell, coming to a stop just before striking the water, and then began to ascend to the top of the cliff.

It was a long flight, and despite his larger form it felt as though the cliff stretched to deny his ascent, the very essence of the stone rising and stretching to continue to challenge him. Still, wings carried him with powerful beats past the edges of the cliff, and up into the sky beyond the plateau. Though he wasn’t that far beyond the ravine’s edge, it looked smaller and smaller beneath him until it was a simple crack in the stone beneath his tail. The stone was a single flagstone on a pathway to a ruined, two-story building - not unlike what you’d find in Acadia - situated in a peaceful valley surrounded on all sides by mountains. On one side stretched withered and forgotten farmlands, on the other, dilapidated sheds and abandoned animal pens. Almost at once, Cadien’s shape was brought into this new reality, his wing beats shaking old wood and pressing weeds low with force. The ravine was barely visible, now that his size was equal to that of this place, it didn’t look like anything but a cracked stone. No one was here either. Wherever Neiya was, she had certainly redecorated.

Cadien sighed. “Neiya, love, where are you?”

"Cadien?” a recognizable voice rang out over his head. Silence prevailed for a single moment, before the frames of the old ruins creaked and shone, and the door to the old house swung open by its own volition. The sight beyond was nothing like expected - indeed, it looked as though it led to another outdoor area, a pavilion and a lake. Even from afar he saw movement in the midst of the pavilion, legs gently sliding into a new resting position. He felt the same forceful tug as the last time he had visited, willing him closer to and through the door unless he resisted. "Come to me, my dearest.”

The door was too small for him in his current state, and so he was forced to transform back into his original form in order to step through. He was beckoned through to a small glen of blooming cherry trees, and a tranquil lake surrounding a marble pavilion. Not given much pause to look at his surroundings, the gentle force coaxed him towards the pavilion with guiding intent.

At its center was a lavish throne, embellished with jewels and gold, and decorated with a rainbow of silks and pillows. A red cloth ran from the throne to the entrance of the pavilion, a beckoning invitation of its own. In the center of all this was a woman who gave off a very recognizable essence, even though her appearance was different. Two long and curved horns curled from her forehead, tucking dark and luscious hair. Gone were the jagged edges, the tangled points, and the asymmetry. Warm pink skin, his lover had assumed a curvaceous but athletic shape, almost fully revealed if not for a few choice garments whose only purpose seemed to be to further emphasize her body. The only distortion of her image was the set of wings resting behind her. Neiya, in her new form, regarded Cadien with gleaming golden eyes, spiraling like the coins minted in the mortal world. "Couldn’t bear to be apart from me, could you?” she voiced with a sultry tone, her leer hinting at an amusement that was absent in the past. She certainly wasn’t frowning.

“You could say that,” Cadien said, and he couldn’t help but admire her new form. “But what about you?”

Neiya rose from her lazy sit, raising long nails to beckon him forwards. This time, the realm did not demand his approach, as Neiya herself instead hovered towards him as if to meet him halfway. Her lips shifted to a pout, but her eyes maintained a conspiratorial, even jesting tint as she glanced away. "Oh, I did not wish to bother you. I thought, perhaps you would forget me if I did not come. You’re a very busy god, my love.”

Unsure if she was serious or not, Cadien chose not to respond to her first comment. “You’ve been rather busy yourself,” he said instead, looking around the room, before his gaze once more settled on her figure.

She looked back at him with the same expression as before, and raised a hand to gently toy with the embellished metal choker around her throat. "Do you like it?” she offered in an ambiguous question. "I’ve made some changes. Taken some additional responsibilities, more in line with who I am.” With that, she began to slide backwards in the air, moving for her throne once more.

“Wait,” Cadien’s hand reached out and gently grasped her wrist. He then adopted a critical expression. “You have chosen a fine form. Very fine. Your best one yet, I dare say. Yet, I can’t help but notice one flaw. A flaw that I myself am guilty of as well, I must admit.”

Neiya gently quirked a brow, eyes drawn down to his grip on her, and then back at his expression. Though she tried her best to remain impassive, her features briefly stained with a frown more closely associated with the haughty and distant expressions common from the goddess. "A flaw? What… what is it?”

Cadien released his grip on the goddess, and the judgemental expression faded - it had never been sincere in the first place. He smiled. “We’re both overdressed.”

In the divine perception of time, Neiya gazed at him for what must have been an eternity. Yellow eyes roamed his features as her own frown shifted to a tinge of surprise. The goddess finally twisted her lips into a small, entertained grin, flashing long canines as she hovered closer to him. Neiya did not relent, pushing her new and improved form against his, parting her lips to speak as her long, pointed tongue extended to briefly touch at his ear. "Anything to please the God of Perfection. Let us amend this, immediately.”



One Eternity Later…

“So,” Cadien said, as he lay next to Neiya on the carpet. “What were these new responsibilities you mentioned earlier?”

Neiya, idly drawing shapes on Cadien’s exposed chest with her nails, surreptitiously cast her golden gaze up towards his face. She paused her gentle toying for a brief moment, humming a thoughtful breath. "Well, I’ve taken a new mantle, helping mortals realize their innermost needs and wants. Things even they might not realize they wish for at first. Help them love themselves, if you wish.”

Cadien furrowed his brow. “Is that so? Hm. Neiya, I do believe it is time that we had a talk…”

"We’re talking right now, aren’t we, my love?” Neiya countered innocently, gazing back down to his chest as she resumed her gentle drawing of invisible shapes. "Is there something that weighs on your mind?”

The God took a deep breath. “I have some misgivings about the way you have interacted with mortals.” he said, and heard Neiya exhale sharply through her nose.

"What of it?” she queried after a few moments of silence.

“Your cult in Ketrefa,” Cadien said, studying her expression carefully.

"Oh,” she began, expression unchanged from a half-focused, lazy peer at his chest as she continued her teasing caress. "That seems like so long ago now, I scarcely recall anything but a devoted few. What about them, my love?” the Goddess explained, and her gaze shifted back to face him head-on, undaunted. Neutral.

Cadien frowned. “They insult my name, teach their followers to reject me, then deface and steal from my temples, all in your name.” His tone was calm, but laced with just the slightest trace of frustration. “They’ve turned entire districts of the city against me.”

Neiya tutted quietly, pursing her lips as she watched him. "My love, you have me right here. Mortals are hardly as bright as you or I. I’m certain they’ll work it out.” she professed with a languid flippancy, and gently daubed her hand against his chest in a brief show of affection. "Besides, can you fault them for being devoted to a love goddess?”

“I can fault them for rejecting all other gods in the process,” Cadien said, his frown deepening. “Neiya, when I spread my teachings to mortals, I do not encourage them to reject or forget other gods. Especially not you. If they do, I correct them.” He paused. “Well, I do teach them to reject that Yamat fellow, but that’s for good reason. Anyhow, all I’m asking is for you to do the same. To prevent such misunderstandings before they can occur.”

Neiya sighed sharply, breaking her gaze away from his. She laid her hand flat on his stomach, pushing herself up slightly to lay her body against his while maintaining distance with her expression. "You lay too much blame on me, love. I’d never ask anyone to reject you. I don’t really speak all that much to mortals. I can send Aveira, if you want.”

“I’m afraid it’s rather late for that,” Cadien admitted. “They have committed far too many crimes against myself and my followers. I’m sorry to say it, but I cannot allow their actions to go unpunished.”

"Why?” she asked sullenly. Golden eyes turned back to stare at him as she turned her head back to face him, chin lifted to match her old moods. "Are you worried devotees of a love goddess will outshine your wood soldiers?”

“Wooden soldiers?” Cadien narrowed his eyes. “Whatever do you mean?”

Neiya scoffed quietly, keeping her gaze locked firmly with his. "You spend too much time worrying about silly things, playing with your humans. If they truly are faithful to Cadien, God of Perfection, surely they won’t be distracted by a few believers refusing to play, no?” Black nails rapped gently on his skin, as the horned goddess shifted against him. "If they can’t handle the pressure, maybe they shouldn’t have your favor.”

He looked at her skeptically. “Did you not just say your new purpose involved helping mortals?”

"Oh, yes, of course.” she admitted quickly, eyes flicking to the side briefly. "But there are many ways to help mortals, my love. I’m not intent on being quite so hands-on as you are. Not yet, anyway.” Neiya sighed softly, and ran her hand up to caress his cheek. "Punish them if you must. Know that each strike is a wound in my heart.”

“The same can be said for me, Neiya,” Cadien said. “And they have been striking for years.” The God fell silent for several long moments before he spoke again. “All I wish is for you to treat me as I treat you.”

Nails ran gently against his skin, caressing his cheek with soft fingertips. Neiya sighed once more. ”Such wounded pride, all by mortals pushing each other around in the dirt. I haven’t communicated with my faithful in Ketrefa for many years. If it matters so much to you, I will intervene.”

“Intervene how?” Cadien asked her curiously.

”Well,” the goddess began conspiratorially, running her hand down to his chest once more. ”What would you like me to do? Hurl thunder? I haven’t practiced my aim, though…”

“Nothing so wrathful, my love,” Cadien chuckled. “In truth, the punishment I issued against them would have depended on how they reacted to the actions of my champion within the city.”

”That’s simple, then. I’ll issue an edict for them to treat your little friend nicely.” the horned goddess concluded with brisk clarity.

Cadien raised an eyebrow. “And to stop defacing or looting my temples? To resume their worship of Ketrefa’s other gods? I do not mind if they place you at the head, but the others deserve to be acknowledged. I’d say I deserve special prominence too, for there is none closer to you than I.”

Neiya lowered her head slowly, laying it against his shoulder and breaking her gaze and expression away. ”I’ll make certain your grievances are brought to their attention.”

The God ran a hand through her hair. “Thank you,” he smiled, then let out a deep breath. “There. That’s over and done with. Now,” he gently moved her head away and rolled onto his side. “What do you say we turn our attention back to more enjoyable activities?”

Neiya settled her golden gaze on his face once more, and twisted her lips into a faint smirk. Both hands laid against his chest, she pushed him back down.






Brundt




He passed with the night. Which night was... Uncertain. For the past week King Amurat the Third’s loyal guards had held the door to his room, forbidding anyone to pass into his chambers. This wasn’t unheard of given the rotund King’s habit of occasionally sequestering himself, and given the news he’d received just before doing so? It was understandable.

Even if... Inconvenient. At the Lord Captain’s order an army had, some time ago, been dispatched without the King’s permission. It would have reeked of sedition, if the Lord Captain hadn’t been so transparent about his desire for vengeance against the barbarians that’d killed his son. Even still, it was a hideous slight to the King, but that in of itself that hadn’t driven the King into seclusion. No, that had happened when word reached the city that the Lord Captain had not only been defeated in the field, but had his entire force destroyed. By barbarians. A barbarian king. Or at least, that was what they said.

What they said was more than Amurat could handle, evidently. These days the King rarely moved, and court was often held at his bedside, but at his word both noble and guard were banished from his presence. That had been a week ago. A person might think a city of tens of thousands wouldn’t be paralyzed by a single man's tantrum. That person would be wrong. No soldiers had been rallied. No legions raised.

For an entire week nobody dared bother the king. It was only now that the smell had become so much worse than normal that anyone had dared check on their sovereign. What they had found was the stuff of nightmares. Left to fester in his magically warmed chambers the King had bloated to such an extent that he more resembled a ball than a man. When the high nobles of the city finally gathered only the first few dared look. Those poor soul’s expressions were proof enough.

It was a tragedy, something that had come at the worst possible time. Or, as some refused to admit in public, the greatest opportunity at the time it was most desperately needed. Amurat had consigned the city to anarchy when he’d ordered the Guard not to intervene in religious affairs. Who was to say he’d run a war any better? It wasn’t an uncommon thought.

Nor was that the King had died without an heir. Perhaps, in another time, that wouldn’t have been so shocking. As it stood though? Amurat’s line had ruled Ketrefa for near three hundred years. Successions had not been a point of contention in all that time. Mainly because, as many cynically noted, the Kings and Queens of the great city only ever had one child. Even if they had many.

There was, eventually, only one. A helpful trick to avoid dynastic infighting, but one decidedly less useful to those left behind when the system collapses. Amurat had had a daughter, but she was dead. He had not sired a child since. So, as the many nobles of Ketrefa gathered in the Royal Palace at the top of the city, the great question on every mind was thus: Who is the ruler of Ketrefa?

For the first time in over a decade, Milos Karras set foot inside the palace. Such a rare occurrence would have drawn more than a few eyes, if not for the man standing next to him.

“No!” a lady shouted. “You can’t bring that thing in here!”

Brundt turned his head and glared at her. The sight of his scarred face made her gasp. He wore all the finery of a wealthy noble, but nonetheless seemed out of place.

“Brundt is the heir to House Karras,” Milos said flatly. “A house that is older, more prestigious, and dare I say wealthier than yours. Has your family fallen so low that you forgot your place?”

“Have you forgotten your senses!?” the lady shouted. “He is-”

“A strong man with a sharp mind and a stout heart,” Grandmaster Varsilis said, stepping through the crowd. “I dare say we will need such a man, in the days to come. Let it be known that the House of Perfection vouches for him, and to insult his honour or his competence would be to insult Cadien’s judgement. Now, both of you, carry on. This is not the time for such drama.”

Carry on they did, though the woman sent Milos a parting hateful glare. Brundt himself was silent, his face kept carefully neutral. He resented the woman’s words, but in truth he himself did not feel like he belonged here.

They carried on into the throne room and found their places. More nobles trickled in, until at last the room was overflowering. The gilded and cushioned throne was empty, the Opal Crown resting on its cushions. In front of stood a short, reedy man by the name of Nimos Laventis. He was from an unremarkable family, but had somehow managed to become the King’s steward; tasked with recording the collection of revenues and resources.

It was he who had called this meeting. Someone had to. There was no set procedure for what to do when the monarch died heirless. That the normally meek and hesitant steward would be the one to call it came as a shock. But, at least with him hosting it, there was little chance of foul play; he was never particularly ambitious. He was just high-ranking enough to be worth listening to from time to time, and just low-ranking enough to have no chance of claiming the throne for himself. Now, everyone looked to him expectantly.

His lips moved, but the words were lost over the gossip. Then he shouted. It was a rare thing for him to raise his voice. The room went quiet, and all heads turned to face him.

“We are g-gathered here today,” he began, his voice somewhat shady. “To decide the matter of… succession. The King has no heirs, and we are at war. The matter must be decided swiftly.”

There was a pause, as the room waited for him to continue, but it seemed he had no further words. The silence went on for far too long.

“How are we to decide it, then?” One lord finally asked, stepping forward.

“We… we shall vote on it,” Lord Leventis decided. “Who wishes to make their case?”

Dozens spoke at once. Some tried to make their case. Others protested the vote itself. Noble lords cited their lineages, or their personal accomplishments. Vague mentions were made of improving the city’s wealth or reducing crime, without clarifying how. Suggestions were raised, both sound and terrible. Promises were made, both sincere and false. It all blended together into a cacophony of rhetorical nonsense. Nimos Leventis paled, clearly uncertain of how to proceed.

“Quiet!” A voice cried over the others in the room. The High Judge of the House of Order, backed by a small cadre of her peers, somehow managed to speak over the arguments and bickering, “Leventis has called a vote, but that doesn’t mean all of you can run. I’m withdrawing the House of Order or it’s initiates from any pool of candidates, and I expect the intelligent ones among you to do the same, if you haven’t the resources to take this seriously.”

Her words were met with more silence. Then, Grandmaster Varsilis stepped forward. “This vote is a waste of time,” he declared. “A Ketrefan army was beaten and broken. While we bicker over the crown, our enemies move against us. We don’t need a King. We spent the last twenty years without one.” His tone was bitter as he shook his head. “What we need is a Lord-Captain. Someone who can raise an army to lead it to victory. Leave the city in the hands of the advisors, and settle the throne after this crisis is over. Those who would claim the kingdom should first do their part to defend it..”

The High Judge nodded her agreement, and one who’d been conspicuously silent spoke. The Captain of the Gates, a figure more than capable of upending this entire affair, voiced his opinion, “The Grandmaster is right. If you want the crown, kill the Barbarians and their King, not each other.”

There were several murmurs at that. The younger and more hot-headed among the nobles had a gleam in their eyes, no doubt dreaming about winning glory on the battlefield. Others - those who were too old to fight, or were unskilled in the art of war - looked sullen or resentful. But the majority seemed to be in favour of the idea.

“How are we to decide the Lord-Captain, then?” a voice asked. “Shall we vote on that?”

“I have a better idea,” Varsilis said. “We let Cadien decide. Who better than the patron god of our soldiers to decide who leads them?”

“The gods don’t speak to mortals, Grandmaster!” a voice shouted, but Varsilis ignored it.

“In the Temple of Cadien, there is a hammer,” he went on. “Everyone here knows of it. Decades ago, when it first appeared, I announced its existence to the city. It is made by a metal our smiths have never seen before, and none but those who are worthy may lift it. I issued a challenge, for every man and woman within this city to come try it. Of those who made an attempt, none succeeded. Not even I, with the Ring of Cadien and the enhanced strength it provides.”

He slammed a fist into his palm. “I propose that we try again. We have fresher faces now, and those who failed all those years ago have hopefully grown wiser with age. We shall choose our army’s commander from those who can lift the hammer, and if none succeed, we will find a different method.”

The High Judge and Captain of the Gate’s both voiced their assent, and although many - especially those who had converted to the Cult of the Horned Goddess - disagreed, the united front was more than enough to stifle any protests.

And so, the nobles of Ketrefa began their march to the Temple of Cadien.



The Temple, although lavish and luxurious, was smaller than the palace, and unable to fit so many highborn in one place. Those of less prestigious families had to wait outside, or in the various side rooms. Some seized the opportunity to take advantage of the temple’s other services, and sought out massages, or unsuccessfully attempted to flirt with the temple’s acolytes. Meanwhile the crowd had parted to allow a line of people to form, leading directly to the altar - all those who wished to make an attempt to lift the hammer.

One by one, they approached the altar. One by one, they grasped the hammer. One by one, they failed. Eventually, the nobles began to grow bored, and chatted amongst themselves. Only a few paid any attention to what happened at the altar. Many actually began to go outside for fresh air, leaving space for those who had to stand outside to finally go in… only to be disappointed. Some had actually gone home.

Hours had passed. Some had taken note of the tall, black-haired, scarred man standing in the line. Those in front of him or behind him told him he shouldn’t even bother. A barbarian, even one who learned to read and dress well, was still a barbarian. Some found it amusing, that he thought he had a chance. But he had glared at him, and that had been enough to intimidate them into silence.

Then, finally, his turn came. He wrapped his hand around the hammer’s shaft…

...and lifted it, as if it was nothing.

“Oh fuck, he wasn’t lying,” The High Judge muttered, and then the room exploded. Nobles who saw the feat screamed of fraud, and those who didn’t started screaming to see what happened and who was lying about what. The temple had been secured by the Guard, and with a nod from the Captain of the Gates they immediately began breaking up the crowd, often mercilessly and without respect to their birth.

The Captain, Trehe Manzprius, allowed his men to terrorize the stunned nobles for a self indulgent moment before he spoke, his wrinkled face seizing the attention of Guard and Nobility alike, “The Lord Captain has been chosen. Until a king is selected there is no higher authority. There isn’t time to protest, you will accept the verdict or I will see you made to accept it.”

Despite his words, as soon as he was finished the explosion resumed. It was quieter now, as there were some who had been fine with the decision in the first place, and others who were now cowed by the Gate-Captain’s words.

“He’s a savage!”

“He’s never even fought a battle!”

“You can’t force us to follow him!”

“I never even agreed to this!”

“SILENCE!” a deep baritone voice boomed like a thundercrack, from within the very minds of those assembled. All gasped and stared in astonishment.

It was Grandmaster Varsilis who recovered first. He exchanged a glance with Milos, and then Brundt. All three men had heard that voice before. He stepped up next to Brundt.

“You agreed,” he said, “to follow Cadien’s champion. The one who could lift the hammer. It was a majority vote. The God of Perfection chose this man, and who are you to disagree? Retract your decision or insult Him further, and you invite His wrath.” He glared harshly at those who had objected the loudest. “Now, all of you. Go. The matter has been settled. When the call to arms comes, I expect you to answer.”





Mekellos




It had been a hectic week for Acadia.

A new Pontiff of Cadien had been appointed. Rather than allow an election to occur, Mekellos had chosen this one himself - a red-haired Merelli. Given what happened to the last one, this one felt more or less inclined to agree with everything he said.

Aside from that, other changes were made too. The practice of abandoning infants who had noticeable defects had been found abhorrent by the Avatar. He had to explain that not all defects and disabilities always rendered some useless. Some defects were actually mostly harmless, and only served to provide an unpleasant appearance.

There was also the matter of Gibbou’s place in the pantheon. When asked if she should be officially recognized, with her own pontiff and branch of the priesthood, Mekellos had simply shrugged and replied: “why not?” This had been taken as acceptance. Now a new pontiff needed to be chosen, a new priesthood founded, and there needed to be a purpose for them to fulfill. Making armour, perhaps? Mekellos left the finer details up to the council. Someone floated the idea that all blacksmiths should be considered priests of Gibbou, and once again they turned to a stalemate.

The Council didn’t dare object to anything Mekellos said, whether it was a suggestion or an order. He was the Avatar of their city’s patron god, so how could they deny them? That said, most of the Council had definitely taken a liking to him - the Pontiffs of Evandra and Neiya, as well as the Queen herself, in particular.



In the meantime, he had also inspected the city’s armies. He had looked upon the discipline and fitness of their soldiers with approval. These men and women were, after all, trained from birth to maintain a peak physique and to follow orders. Unsurprisingly, they excelled at both. He saw the tightness of their spearmen’s phalanx formation and the accuracy of their archers.

Mekellos looked upon them, and as was his duty, he wondered: how can this be made better? Then, he had an idea.

He waved his hand, and hundreds of bows materialized in the practice yard, far longer and far stronger than anything the Acadians had on hand. The new soldiers were taken aback by the casual display of divine power.

“I have crafted some new weapons for you,” he announced. “They’ll take some getting used to, but they possess far more range and power than any bow you have ever shot. Now, go on. Pick some up and start practicing. Put the rest into storage somewhere.”

The Avatar turned away. “Now I’ll take a look at your defenses…”



Acadia was surrounded by a stone palisade, ten metres high. It was of reasonable thickness, but there was no walkway to stand atop it. For archers to defend the city, there were a series of towers, placed at regular intervals. Unfortunately, only so many archers could defend the city at once. Mekellos wondered if there was a way to increase their firepower.

He considered the problem for days, sequestering himself within a room, pausing his deliberations only when one of the monarchs or pontiffs came to visit him. They caught only glimpses of his design; strange schematics that he was constantly redrafting.

Then, at last, the avatar devised something that was workable. He walked from tower to tower, conjuring forth the devices. They were like gigantic bows turned sideways, capable of loading and loosing massive arrows. He added one to each tower, until the city was surrounded by them.

“There,” he smiled, once he was done. “That’s better.”






Evette

&
The First Templars




Four promising recruits had been gathered. All of them from Korstone or the surrounding villages. All of them skilled, and all of them seemingly dedicated to the cause. The ingredients themselves had not been too hard to gather. Now, it was time to begin.

They stood on a hill. The moon loomed overhead. She had thought long and hard about how to go about this. There should be some sort of ceremony, she decided. This was a holy duty. So, she looked upon the first of her recruits - a warrior from the countryside, with a copper sword and hide armour. “Do you swear to eradicate all abominations, and all threats to humankind?”

“By Cadien’s Grace, I swear it,” the man answered.

“Do you swear to protect the innocent, whatever the cost?”

“By Gibbou’s Shield, I swear it.”

“And do you swear to serve as a beacon of hope? To lend your aid to those who need it?”

“By Oraelia’s Light, I swear it.”

She handed him a clay cup. He eyed the red liquid warily, and then drank. He gagged slightly, but was able to force it down. The effects were almost immediate. His eyes widened, as he felt his reflexes increase and his eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness.

She went through the rest of her recruits, and did the same. There was a guardsman from Korstone. A mage, also from Korstone. And a hunter from a rural village. They all drank, and they all changed.

“It is done,” she declared. “You are now Templars of the Night.”








Alys

&
Mathias




The low stone palisade of the city of Azanta came into view, as the Carnival walked along the road.

Well, not all of them were walking.

Alys was seated in the back chariot, in a luxuriously padded seat. A single driver sat up front, steering the two quillats which pulled them. As she set her eyes upon the city’s walls, she yawned, and then brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “Mathias,” she called out in a light tone.

The avatar appeared from somewhere else in the Carnival’s traveling group, his footsteps light and nearly silent, he walked up alongside the chariot Ays had chosen as her mount to travel with constantly. ”What is it Alys?” he spoke, his voice still harsh as ever.

“The city up ahead. Do you know anything about it?”

Mathius looked far ahead at the low walls, thinking long and hard for a few seconds. ”I believe that is the city of Azanta, a smaller lesser city, i don’t know much else beyond that, seems like a good place to hunker down at least for a bit.”

“Hm,” Alys mused. “I’ve heard some interesting things about these cities, you know. That the men and women are all so clean and beautiful, and there’s no shortage of admirers for entertainers.”

”Both things which could greatly assist us,” He looked up to Alys sitting on her cushions ”I think our little group will be more than welcomed there.”

She nodded. “Let’s see what it has in store, then.”

They reached the gate a few minutes later. The guards questioned them about their business. As usual, they claimed to be a travelling group of entertainers, which was technically true. And the guards seemed to have heard of them. Eventually, they were let through.

But only a few moments after entering the city, Alys recoiled, as the stench of thousands of people living together struck her nostrils. “Ick,” she gagged in disgust.

Mathius chuckled ”You know, after a while I was sure you’d get used to the smell.” This, despite the fact Mathius had no nose, and couldn’t smell a single thing.

She frowned. “So, what do you think we should do next?”

”I’d suggest first finding a place to set up, a nice public place for our performances.”

“There’s usually space in the market,” she pointed out.



And so they had gone to the market, and found a place to set up. A number of those in the Carnival began to perform, playing lyres, flutes, and drums. Alys stood among them, but had decided to hold off displaying her magic just yet. As a crowd began to form to observe and listen, two members of the Carnival walked among them, stealthily picking the pockets of wealthier looking citizens. Mathius meanwhile, stood in the shadows, keeping an eye out but not revealing himself, as he could never be too sure on how a crowd would react to him.

Eventually the market closed, and they set about the task of finding lodgings for themselves. They performed again the next day, which more or less went the same, although at the end a servant approached them and revealed that his employer, a high-ranking nobleman, wished to hire entertainment for a feast in three days.

“Hm. I accept,” Alys smiled, and the messenger looked as if his heart had melted.

After he was gone she turned to Mathias. “Looks like we’re moving up in the world, hm?”

”Quite, such a venue will let us show ourselves off a bit more, of course,” He “gazed” off to where the servant was heading off ”We should be careful, one wrong move and their tragedy shall become ours.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Alys said, though her mind was clearly elsewhere, as she thought about what might be in store. She then remembered that she had been invited as an entertainer, and not a guest, so it might perhaps not be as exciting or as luxurious as she expected. She frowned. “We’ll need to think of something to perform, then.”

The avatar thought for a moment "Our host is most likely expecting something good, perhaps we get the Ashlin twins to perform some of their acrobatics coupled with some magic?"

“I could do some magic,” she nodded. “Maybe start out with something simple, like flashing lights, and work my way up to more complex spells if that’s not enough to impress them.”

Mathius nodded, his face still scanning the city "That should work, give them something to, die for, as my creator always says, of course, if you need an extra boost I'm sure I can aid"

“Well then… let’s start planning out the specifics…”



Three days passed. They spent their days performing in the marketplace, and other public spaces. In the process, they learned more about the happenings in the city. Their noble patron, the Lord of House Petrelis, was one of the most powerful men in the city, second only to the King. The King himself was a supposedly wise and just ruler. Only two years ago he had married a princess from a neighbouring city-state to secure an alliance, and already she was pregnant with their first child. The city as a whole was relatively prosperous, with the past few years offering bountiful harvests.

In the nights, when Alys wasn’t otherwise distracted, she and Mathias planned the show they would put on for the city’s nobility. A display of acrobatics, accompanied by an illusionary light show. A short play, enhanced by illusion magic. A dance. And of course, plenty of instrumental interludes. When not performing, the members of the Carnival were instructed to learn as much as they could about the city’s nobility by taking every opportunity to talk with the staff or the guests.

It was not enough to simply know the broad strokes of the city’s everyday happenings. Alys wanted names. She wanted to know who she could exploit, either for her own amusement or her own personal gain. Though, as Mathias had said, she should still exercise some level of caution.

Eventually, the night came.



The Petrelis estate was more impressive than any building Alys had ever seen. It was larger than any ruddy chieftain’s hall, and its main hall alone could hold nearly a hundred people. Over a dozen noble families were present, and to fill up the guest list several wealthy landowners and merchants had also been invited.

It was more people than Alys had ever seen in one place, and though she was initially overwhelmed, she quickly composed herself. Your far more powerful, and more important, and more beautiful than all of them combined, she reminded herself, and then smiled. She wore a linen dress, which had been dyed purple. The rest of the Carnival was not as well-dressed; despite their best efforts to wash their attire, some still had the stains of travel. But it would have to suffice.

And suffice it did. Although many in the hall looked at the stains or the faded fabrics with disapproval, others had been more understanding - they were, after all, travellers, and had only been in the city for a few days. Indeed, they had actually been last minute replacements; the troupe of bards that Lord Petrelis had originally sought to hire had changed their plans at the last minute.

Then the performance began, and the rest were willing to overlook the shoddiness of their attire. They first began with the acrobats, with the two twins in their company impressing the audience with a series of flips and sommersaults, as Alys created a show of flashing colourful lights. Then there was the dance routine, where a small group of dancers carried out Mathias’s carefully planned choreography with surprising ease and grace.

After that, they launched into a small play, about a dispute between two wizard who loved the same woman. Eventually they wound up duelling each other, which resulted in both of them being killed, before it turned out that the person the woman actually loved was one of the mage’s apprentices. Alys had used her spells to simulate spellcasting, making the duel look surprisingly realistic, to the point where the actual mages in the crowd began to tense nervously, before realizing it wasn’t real. Then the tension turned to admiration, for all had thought illusions on that scale to be more or less impossible.

The three acts had all been met with cheers and applause, and Alys knew they had done well. Lord Petrelis, who had begun the night looking somewhat nervous, now beamed with pride. Afterward, while a handful of the Carnival’s bards continued to provide instrumental music that the rest of the room could drink and dance to, the rest - the dancers, the acrobats, Alys and Mathias themselves - were permitted to wander the room and join in the festivities.

Alys soon found herself with a crowd of admirers. Some of whom, based on the glares she received from various women in the room, already had attachments. She was bombarded with invitations to dance, and, after feigning reluctance, she accepted. She wasn’t particularly good at dancing, but most did not seem to care. More than a few had made certain propositions to her - her noble employer among them - and although she found some to be rather tempting, she had instead feigned nervousness and refused. She wanted to know more about these people, and besides, she believed an initial display of reluctance made them desire her even more.

Elsewhere, the rest of her followers did their own part to charm the crowd and gather information.

In the end, the night was a resounding success, and there was already talk that other nobles might hire them for other occasions. Alys grinned as she and her followers left the estate. “Well,” she said to Mathias. “I think that went perfectly.”

"I must admit it went better than I expected, the performance most certainly gave them a show, and I am impressed they seemingly had little opinion of my or the other's dress, that Lord certainly took a liking to you" Mathius chuckled at that, he enjoyed the constant stream of suitors Alys had, and this time was no different.

“He was rather handsome,” Alys smirked. “Anyway, they’re paying us in grain, so I think tomorrow we could go to the market and exchange it for some finer clothes. At least a few nobles want some of our performers to put on smaller shows for them in more private settings. We could probably stay here a long time before we have to move on, I think.”

”It would not be a terrible idea, having their patronage for a time could help us, upgrade our appearance, no offense but our little troupe does have a habit of looking no better than poor villagers.” He looked down at himself ”Though, I must admit I am no better.”

“Indeed,” Alys nodded. “You really should find some better garb.”

”Not my fault my creator decided to choose this as my form, a mask should be sufficient to limit the amount of staring eyes, and I'm sure you will seek some more opulent outfits yourself.”

“I suppose your outfit works if we say it’s a costume for a performance,” Alys shrugged. “But still. Can you not change it? Or at the very least wear something else over it?”

He shrugged in return ”I haven’t had the care enough to attempt, admittingly my creator is loose in his use of me, but regardless, it is hard to find garb that will fit my, body shape.” He gestured to his own incredibly boney arms still covered with golden cloth, and his similarly golden cloth face that just barely looked like an actual face.

“Hmm…” a rare look of thoughtfulness passed over Alys’s face. “What does your creator want, anyway? Flattered as I am that a divine avatar has spent so much time following me around, you never did tell me why.”

[color=A52A2A]”Well, I would’ve if I knew, despite my deep connection to them, they have only informed me to keep an eye on you and, in their words ‘draw her closer’, I’ve always assumed I am here to ensure you cause as much tragedy as possible, which, is not that hard a task.”[color] The end of his words were filled with, some sense of pride.

“Oh, you’ve ensured nothing,” Alys scoffed. “I do what I want. I have power, and I use it as I see fit. Not that I’m not grateful for your help, of course.”

Mathius chuckled, ”My creator would say otherwise, but, I have no interest in arguing it, just glad I'm no longer babysitting a child who somehow managed to get more lost than she already was.”

“Hey,” Alys gave a mock-pout. “I seem to recall that I was the one giving the orders. And my infallible leadership eventually brought us here, didn’t it? It may have taken several years, but it’s progress!”

”Yes, and let us forget the several regions and villages we can never return to due to your orders.” He replied, taking a similar mock-tone of disappointment.

“But that was all part of my master plan! Those places were so awful, I had no choice but to engineer events so that we can’t possibly go back. Really, in the long-run I did us a favour.”

Mathius couldn’t help but laugh at that one ”Alright I’ll give you that, some of those places were pretty horrid, but, I digress.” He looked up at the dark sky ”We should find rest once more, not like I need it, but our group will need it, what with all the nobles in a mile radius offering us gigs.”

“Oh, I’ll rest… eventually…” her eyes flickered over to the acrobatic twins in their troupe, and lingered on them for a few moments. “The next few days will be rather busy, I think.”



And indeed, they were. The troupe was outfitted with finer clothes. Plays, songs, and dance routines were rehearsed in preparation, and Alys began sending off performers to various new patrons. It was nothing major - mostly family dinners or small gatherings - but it did serve to bolster their reputation and bring in a source of income.

Then, exactly one week after their first performance in the city’s marketplace, tragedy struck. The Queen of Azanta had gone into labour early, but her child was stillborn, and the Queen herself perished not long after. The once cheerful King was stricken by grief.

The tragic news even gave Alys pause, but only for a moment. Then she shrugged. People died all the time. What made royalty so special? So, she went back to enjoying herself, and planning for the next performance…






Carnelian




Abbas fumed.

Nearly two hundred men were dead. Over a hundred had deserted in despair. Of the mighty host he had first set out with, less than half remained, and those that did were in a state of panic. They had just been broken by a force that by all rights should have been able to do no more than scratch them. Was it magic or skill that allowed them to shoot with such accuracy? The work of the gods, one of the bowmen had kept insisting.

“Neiya is the only goddess we need,” the Lord-Captain had insisted, glaring at the man. When setting out from Ketrefa, three hundred of the men in his host had dedicated themselves to Neiya and Neiya alone. After the yesterday’s slaughter, however, he had no way of knowing how many faithful truly remained.

It was not supposed to go this way. When the barbarians got unruly, a host was sent forth to crush them. The barbarians, with their inferior numbers, equipment, and discipline, were unable to resist Ketrefan might. The army would be shattered, as would the defiance of generations to come. But this time, it had been different. It was a Ketrefan army that was shattered, by what couldn’t have been more than twenty men.

Now, Abbas was a dead man. The King would never accept the loss of three hundred men. No matter what story he told. The punishment inflicted upon young Milos would pale in comparison to the disgrace that would ensue when he turned home, regardless of whether he crushed the uprising or not.

There was no happy ending for him. But at least, if he kept marching, he could reduce the shame somewhat and also avenge his son. He would be mocked, cursed, perhaps even executed, but at least his soul would be able to rest peacefully knowing he had his vengeance.

Yet as he looked upon his men in the morning light, he knew they all wanted to return to Ketrefa. He could see the fear in their eyes. Some, he suspected, had only refused to flee because they feared the savages would pick them off one by one in the wilderness.

It was one of his surviving subordinates who made this concern audible, during a meeting they held that morning, in Abbas’s tent. “My lord,” the young nobleman said - he was barely twenty. “We must fall back.” Most of the other lords in the tent nodded their agreement.

“Do you want to tell the King how we were beaten by twenty men armed with sticks and stones?” Abbas snarled.

“Over half our men are gone,” the young nobleman protested. “The rest don’t have the heart to press any further. If we order them to keep going, then if the savages don’t kill us, our own men will.”

Another lord, only a few years older, clenched his fists in outrage. “Unthinkable! They swore an oath-”

“Most of them are commoners,” a man close to Abbas’s age interrupted. “They don’t possess the same noble blood that we do. They aren’t as beholden to honour, or glory, or prestige as we are. They’ll obey us so long as obedience is preferable to disobedience.” He shifted his gaze to Abbas. “My lord, if we don’t withdraw the campaign, they will turn on us.”

Abbas grit his teeth. He knew they were right. But if he listened to them, there would be no chance to avenge his son, and he would have to face the mockery and contempt of an entire city. Yet… should he place his personal quest for vengeance above the lives of his men?

Soldiers had always seemed an expendable resource to him. Just numbers. Send twenty men on a raid. If two died, then so long as the raid made enough profit to train and equip two more soldiers, it was a good trade. But now? He had seen his men fight in battle. He could see the fear in their eyes as dozens of men fell around them. He had heard the desperation mixed with raged as they carried out the doomed charge uphill. They were lesser creatures, who would never be his equals, but could he truly call them expendable now?

His subordinates awaited an answer, and he had none. He was interrupted then, when two soldiers came into the room, one of which was dirty and bruised.

“My lords!” the unwounded began. “My apologies, but… the barbarians captured one of our sentries.” He nudged the disheveled warrior. “Tell them what happened.”

“I heard a sound, and went to investigate…” the other soldier said. “It was a trap. They knocked me out, and carried me away. When I woke they told me they had a message. Then they took my weapon and sent me back.”

Abbas’s eyes narrowed. “What is the message?”

“Their leader wants to talk to you. To negotiate your surrender.”

“Surrender?” He had not expected that.

The soldier nodded. “He asked for a meeting, on the condition that both sides swear by Tekret that they will offer safe conduct.”

Abbas ruminated over that idea for a few moments. “If he wants a meeting so badly,” the Lord Captain decided, “he can come into our camp alone, and talk to me face to face. I’ll meet him nowhere else. Go tell him that.”

The soldier blinked. “Tell him, my lord?”

“Who else is going to?” Abbas snapped. “Go!” It would be rejected, of course, but at least it would give him more time to think.



The soldier returned an hour later. “My lord,” the soldier bowed. “He agreed to your terms, but insisted that he be allowed to bring a weapon.”

Abbas was, quite frankly, surprised that the barbarian leader was open to the condition at all. “A weapon?”

“His sword, my lord. Said he was already going in alone, so taking it away won’t make a difference.”

Abbas was almost tempted to refuse. But then, he thought about it. If he refused, then this barbarian commander might abandon the prospect of a meeting entirely. If he accepted, however, then the barbarian might be lulled into a false sense of security. There was, of course, the danger that the barbarian might try to kill him, but Abbas would have guards, and was confident enough in his own skills that one man with a sword couldn’t best him.

He had sworn by Tekret that he would offer safe conduct, but an oath made to a barbarian held no legitimacy, and Neiya was the only goddess in his heart anyway. The important thing was that fate had given him an opportunity to avenge his son with no further losses, and he meant to seize it.



Abbas stood in the center of camp, as the figure approached - alone, as promised. Though he could make out the silhouettes of the surviving skirmishes. His men could too, and they were frightened by the sight.

As the leader came closer, his features became apparent. He was tall, and handsome, with snow white hair. “Hello there!” the barbarian greeted him as he passed by the tents. He was flanked by a pair of guards - two of Abbas’s more loyal men, but even they seemed afraid of him. “I am Carnelian. Champion of Cadien.”

“You’re the one who killed my son?” Abbas asked, in a surprisingly calm tone, but he could feel the rage building up.

“That I did,” Carnelian nodded without remorse. “And all of his men. And most of the men who were with you yesterday. We have enough stones and arrows to finish the rest of you, but I think enough blood has been spilled for now.”

Abbas clenched his fists, and a vein bulged in his forehead. The gall…

“So, my conditions,” Carn said, not seeming to notice. “I want you and all your men to throw down your arms, and swear an oath to never march against me or my followers again. In return, I’ll let you all head back to your city, alive and unharmed. Though… I can’t make any promises on behalf of the people you robbed and looted on the way here.”

It was a generous offer, if one were to look at it impartially. But Abbas was not impartial. He felt the eyes of the entire camp on him. Most of his men seemed hopeful. Unfortunately, their hopes would soon be dashed. “Here’s my counter-offer,” he said, then drew his sword, while the two guards on either side of Carnelian did the same.

With lightning-speed, Carn’s own blade was out. He swung it across one guard’s throat, ducked under the swing of the second guard, then followed through with his initial swing and sliced off the warrior’s leg. As both men fell, Abbas had rushed forward - not even processing what had happened - then Carn’s shining blade came up and cleaved Abbas’s bronze weapon in two.

The shock stopped Abbas in his tracks. Then Carn lashed out with a fist, punching the Lord-Captain straight in the nose, before seizing him by his shoulders, turning him around, and putting the sword’s blade to his throat.

The entire camp was on their feet, and every man drew a blade, but none dared move. Their leader was held hostage, and the menacing silhouettes of Carn’s skirmishers were still visible on the horizon.

“He promised me safe conduct, and yet he tried to kill me!” Carn declared. “By my reckoning, that makes all of your lives forfeit. But I’m a generous man! The terms I offered to him can still apply to you. Just throw down your weapons, and go back the way you came. Leave everything else behind. Including him.”

Abbas shouted and struggled with rage, but Carn clamped a hand over his mouth and pressed the blade so close that it broke skin. “Well?” Carn asked. “What is it?”

There were several tense moments of silence where the guards exchanged nervous glances. None of them wanted a fight. They had seen what happened when they fought Carnelian and his men. They thought of home, and families.

One man threw down a spear. Then another. Then four more. Then ten. Then dozens. Soon, nearly the entire army had disarmed themselves. Only a few dozen stubborn holdouts remained, but they too yielded when they realized the supposed hopelessness of their situation. “Now go!” Carn ordered.

And go they did, filing out of the camp one by one, as they made their way back west. Some were ashamed. Others were relieved.

Once they were gone, eleven of Carn’s skirmishers came into camp, all of them grinning wildly. Carn passed the livid-looking Abbas into the hands of two of his men, and then, after taking one last look to ensure the remaining Ketrefans were out of sight, began to laugh.

Several others joined in. They laughed for a good long while, ignoring Abbas’s threats and curses, before eventually settling down. Carn turned to Abbas - who had now been gagged - with a smile. “You’re probably wondering what’s so funny,” he said. “You see… what we did yesterday, that wasn’t normal. None of us can shoot that well. It was a blessing, you see. A one-time blessing, which we learned the hard way when we engaged some stragglers. Lost some good men too,” he sighed.

“Thing is, though, at least we knew that. We also knew that you and your men didn’t know. Might as well take advantage of that. And you made things even easier, when you broke your word and tried to kill me.” He shook his head. “So, congratulations Lord-Captain. Your five hundred men were defeated by twenty.”

Abbas attempted to launch himself forward, and Carn’s men were barely able to hold him back. The Lord-Captain thrashed and raged in his grip. “I won’t kill you, though,” Carn decided. “Not yet. I don’t like oathbreakers. Too many stingy bastards refused to give me what they promised, back in my mercenary days, and far too often I was sent to go deal with someone who refused to pay what they owed.” He shook his head. “So, for now you get to live. You’ll live like a caged criminal, because that’s what you are. You’ll follow my army as it grows and expands. You’ll watch me attack your city, and you’ll watch it fall. Then, and only then, will I allow you to die.”

The thrashing and muffled screaming continued. Carn wasn’t entirely sure the Lord-Captain had even heard him. “Shut him up,” he ordered. “I won’t listen to that for- oh what’s this?” He turned his gaze westward to see a new group approaching. They did not wear the armour of Ketrefan soldiers, or of a countryside militia, but the rough clothes of simple peasants. They came from the nearby village, Carn had realized. The one that was sacked.

Most ignored Carn and his men, and began to move around the camp, searching for loot. Others stared at him and his men with awe and fascination. One of their number, a blonde-haired woman in her late twenties, who wore leather armour, stepped forward. “You… you’re Carnelian?” she asked him.

Carn nodded. “That I am.”

“We… we heard of your uprising, but… we didn’t think it would work. Where are the rest of your men?”

“These are all I brought,” Carn answered.

The look in her eye made it clear she didn’t believe him. “How did you win?”

“Through cunning, luck, and a bit of divine aid,” Carn answered. “You know who I am. So you know I’m the Champion of Cadien.”

“I did not believe it. But now… forgive me,” she cast her eyes downward.

“There’s nothing to forgive. I wouldn’t expect you to follow someone who has done nothing to prove themselves,” Carn assured her, before shifting his gaze west. “The Ketrefans sacked your village, didn’t they?”

She nodded. “They did. My father was the Chieftain. He tried to resist. Said it wasn’t time for tribute. They killed him. Then they set fire to his hut to make an example, but it spread to the others. They just took our food, and kept moving.” She gestured to the looting all around them. “We’re taking it back.”

Carn nodded. He had been hoping for some loot, but if this conversation was going where he thought it would be going, then goodwill was more important. “Of course. I won’t stop you. But where will you go now?”

She looked back in the direction of her village. “My father wasn’t the only one who died,” she said. “There were many losses. Some of my people will blame you - say it was your actions that brought the wrath of the Ketrefans upon us. But others… they’ll look at you and see a chance for justice. Some will stay and rebuild, but others… do you need more people?”

Again, Carn nodded. “Of course. I’ll not turn away aid,” he smiled. “I’ll accept all who wish to join. Though I have to ask, do you count yourself among them?”

“Yes,” she said. “I do.” She hesitated for a moment. “My name is Ingrid.”






Carnelian




Carn slipped a stone into the sling, and took a deep breath.

Then, he let it fly.

The stone struck the target just a few inches off-center. Not too bad, given he had only recently started practicing.

He had picked up the sling out an idle curiosity. Then he couldn’t hope but admire the simplicity of use and the ease to reload. He had recalled the siege of Jalka, where he had stood powerless on the wall until the enemy began their ascent, and only then had he been allowed to start killing. With the sling, that would change. It provided some much-needed versatility in combat, so that he might be able to down one or two foes before being forced into a melee.

He wasn’t wearing Titania. Instead he had left her in his hut, under guard. Wearing armour all the time was frankly uncomfortable. Even more so when that armour was sentient and capable of speech. It felt as if his every action was being observed and judged. Furthermore, a rumour was spreading in the village that the armour was beginning to control him. So, with all those factors in mind, he tended to avoid wearing her unless it was necessary. That said, he still conferred with her for advice, or simply to see how she was doing. It would not do to end up on sour terms with a divine avatar.

“Lord Carnelian! Lord Carnelian!”

His head turned, just in time to see a man running toward him, face red and sweating. The sweaty man came to a stop before him, trying to speak but unable to form words. “Take a moment to breathe,” Carn advised, placing a hand on his shoulder.

A few moments passed, and at last, the man was able to regulate his breathing to a point where he could finally speak. “The scouts… are back!” he huffed. “The Ketrefans… they’re coming!”

Carn’s eyebrows rose. Already? He had sent scouts westward to watch the city and take note of troop movement, but still, he thought he would have had more time… “How many?” he asked.

“Five… Five hundred…” the man breathed.

Five hundred. Carn had expected a large number, but when he finally heard it, he was only now being hit by the reality of his situation. Between Thyma and the few villages that had allied with him, he had maybe less than a hundred warriors - assuming all the villages answered the call, which might not be the case. Of those hundred warriors, only forty were at Thyma right now. If all the scouts would back, that meant they had fifty. The rest would have to be summoned.

How was he to kill five hundred men with only one hundred? He had assumed he would rely on divine intervention, but would that be enough? Even with a sword and an unbreakable suit of armour, he was only one man.

He looked to the wall. That would give them an edge. Then a dark thought occurred to him. What if the commander didn’t assault the wall? What if instead, the commander burned and slaughtered the neighbouring villages? Villages which most of his army hailed from - they would not stand idly by while their families were slain.

Which meant Carn would have to take those families into the walls. But Thyma did not have space for them all, and even if they did… the attackers could simply surround the village and wait for them to run out of food. Then let starvation do the rest. The walls were not a shield, he realized in horror, they were a tomb. And in that moment he cursed Titania. The avatar of a goddess should have known better!

The man saw Carn’s expression and seemed alarmed by it, no doubt having expected Carn to already have a plan.

Carn let the worry fade from his face, and steeled his heart. It would not do to let his worries show. His followers had to believe he was confident in their victory. Otherwise, they would not hold. And if they didn’t hold, they would die.

But what to do? Fight them in the field, and they would use their numbers against him. Fight them on the walls, and there would be no fight at all - just a long gruelling wait while his forces slowly turned against him. Then he looked at the sling in his hands, and he had an idea. A desperate one, but it might work.

“Bring me Yarwick,” he ordered. “And also, every man who can use a bow or a sling.”



“They’ll think you’re abandoning them,” Yarwick had warned him.

“They won’t,” Carn shook his head. “I’m heading toward the enemy, not away. I’m taking men and women who are good in a skirmish, and I’m calling our allies to send their warriors here. If anyone still has doubts, I’ll expect you and Titania to settle them.”

Yarwick furrowed his brow. “You aren’t bringing her with you?”

Carn shook his head. “She’ll draw attention to me and slow me down. Better that I don’t stand out. I’ll thin out their numbers and slow them down. When I return, I’ll join the defense.”

“If you don’t return?”

“If I die,” Carn told him, “you will take up the cause.”



And on that grim note, Carn and his party of twenty skirmishers had set out. Eight carried bows, while the other twelve - himself included - carried slings.

There was a mixture of nervousness and excitement among them. Some had been the scouts Carn had originally sent. They had seen the army with their own eyes - its size larger than the populations of entire villages - and they could not possibly imagine how any force might defeat it.

Others, however, were excited. They were marching into battle, under the eyes of a god. They had never seen battle, but they had heard legends of glorious heroes and valourous warriors. This was their chance to become legends themselves. They had mixed equipment; whatever would serve as protection without impeding their mobility. Carn himself wore a mixture of hardened hides and leather, but his shining sword and sling were both at his belt.

Onward they marched. To freedom, and glory. Victory, or death.



Eight days after departing from Thyma, they finally came upon Ketrefa’s army.

“Neiya’s heaving bosom...” one of Carn’s men had uttered quietly, upon seeing the massive column march along the crude dirt road. Just behind the host, a large plume of smoke could be seen. The only thing that could produce such a flame would be a burning village. “Bastards...” a woman had muttered spitefully.

They watched from a high hill, some distance away. Carn had to admit, he himself was somewhat daunted by the sight. He had not seen so many fighters in one place since the war between Jalka and Merok, and this was but a portion of Ketrefa’s power.

“Alright,” Carn said, breaking the tense silence. “Load your slings. Nock your arrows.”

They stared at him wide-eyed. “Are you mad?” one of them asked.

Carn glared at him. “We loose a few shots, then we retreat before they can hurt us. Slow their march, and fray their nerves. I’m not expecting us to kill the entire army on our own. Now, make ready.” He brought his own sling out and slipped a stone into it. The others reluctantly obeyed. “Loose your weapons in your own time,” he said, then swung the sling back and launched it forward.

The stone flew, eventually becoming so small he could no longer see it. Then, a figure among the Ketrefans fell to the ground. His nineteen archers followed suit, loosing stones and arrows, and a few more Ketrefans fell. Shouts of alarms rang out.

Suddenly, Carn felt another sensation overtake him, similar to when Cadien had spoken to him in the temple. In that moment, he knew the god was watching, and based on the expressions of his skirmishers, he knew they felt it through. “Again!” he shouted, snapping them out of it.

Twenty stones and arrows were loosed. This time, twenty men fell. To Carn’s astonishment, every shot seemed to have hit. All his knowledge of warfare told him such a thing was impossible, and yet, it had happened.

This time, his people needed no prompting. They loosed their projectiles on their own initiative, and again, every single shot sent a Ketrefan to the dirt. Then Ketrefa’s archers, who had been stationed at the rear, turned toward them and drew back the strings of their bows. “Down!” Carn shouted.

His men threw themselves to the ground as one hundred arrows shot forth. The volley killed four and wounded two, but thankfully those two could still wield their slings. “Focus on the archers!” Carn yelled, and his skirmishers obeyed, loosing stones and arrows as fast as they could.

Again, they could not miss.

The archers began dropping at a rapid rate, their commander among them, and in the confusion they could not get another volley off. Instead, they broke, running for safety behind the spearmen who had formed a shield wall. Carn ordered his men to focus on that instead, and even despite the raised shields, Ketrefans continued to fall. Every single stone and arrow seemed to somehow find its way through a narrow gap in the shields, killing or wounding men, and opening up holes in the line which the others could continue to shoot into.

The Ketrefans shouted and panicked, as some men attempted to flee while others tried to close the gaps or carry wounded comrades to safety behind the shields. Bronze-clad officers shouted, and attempted to restore order. Then one voice cut above the rest; that of who Carn could only assume was the army’s commander. “Charge! Charge, you cowards! By Neiya, CHARGE!”

The Ketrefans then turned and began running up the hill. But it was a half-hearted attack. Only two thirds of them actually went forward, while the rest scattered for safety. Those who did go up the hill were more a mob than a disciplined force, and though they managed to kill over two dozen more, it was clear the rest would close the distance.

“Time to go!” Carn shouted. “Retreat!”

And with those words, he and his men turned and fled, leaving corpses and chaos behind them.



As Carn and his men made camp that night, the mood was jubilant. Although they had lost comrades, and had been forbidden from setting fires for fear of being detected by the enemy, they were in high spirits. At the cost of only five of their own, they had killed nearly two hundred Ketrefans. Those unschooled or inexperienced in tactics knew such a thing was virtually unheard of, even in all but the most fanciful legends and songs.

They helped themselves to a meal of blueberries, evening bells, and some leftover meat from the previous day. The evening bells only served to increase their spirits further, and even Carn had a few.

“They’ll sing about us forever!” one man proclaimed.

“To the death of every Ketrefan!” another shouted, apparently forgetting the fear of their camp being discovered. In truth though, it was unlikely the Ketrefans would make an attempt this night. Who would willingly seek them out after the slaughter of the previous day?

Carn smiled. He had not expected to inflict such a crushing defeat. All he had wanted was what he had said; to thin out their numbers, slow them down, and fray their nerves. Instead, he and his twenty archers had shattered half the army. Between the natural euphoria of victory and the artificial euphoria of the evening bells, he was happier than he had ever been. “Tomorrow we finish them!” he vowed, raising a fist into the air.









Dakari




Dakari, Jakri, and Adara returned to their village in a solemn mood. The sentries eyed them warily.

“Dakari,” one of them said, eying the black-haired angel warily. “Where’s the rest of your warband? Where is Ashara?”

“Dead,” Dakari answered grimly.

The sentry’s eyes narrowed. “And you ran?”

“Only after Ashara was killed,” Dakari glared. “But my report is for Madora. Not you. Stand aside.”

The sentry glared back but dutifully stood aside. The village was a collection of huts; wooden frames supporting mud walls with roofs of leaves and thatch. On the outskirts, makeshift shelters of branches, leaves, and animal hides had been erected, for those who had recently joined the village but had yet to have their own huts built. The largest building was in the center, and it naturally belonged to their leader; Adora.

As they neared Madora’s hut, they could hear screams elsewhere in the village. “They’re still torturing him?” Jakri asked, sounding surprised. “I thought he’d be dead by the time we got back.”

“I wonder if they got anything useful out of him,” Adara said aloud.

“They haven’t,” Dakari growled. “Torture’s a waste of time. Relying on the enemy for information?” He shook his head. “They’ll just tell you whatever they think will make the pain stop, whether it’s true or not. Better to trust in your own eyes and ears.” Another scream came, as if to punctuate his statement, and the three continued to the hut. Another guard was posted outside.

“Dakari,” the guard said, her expression blank.

“I’m here to see Madora,” Dakari told her. “Ashara is dead.”

“War Mother damn them,” the guard cursed. “Go on in, then.”

Dakari pushed aside the tent flap, stepping into the hut, as his two surviving companions followed behind him. In the center of the hut was a woman, seated at a chair, with a crude map of animal hide stretched out across the table in front of her. She looked up as Dakari entered. “What’s this I hear about Madora being dead?”

“She wanted us to ambush an Oraeliari patrol, deep in their territory,” Dakari answered. “Turns out they knew we were coming and had an ambush of their own. We were surrounded, but fought as hard as we could. After Ashara died, I rallied the survivors and we fought our way out. We’re all that’s left.”

Madora stared at him for a moment, and then her gaze shifted to the two figures standing behind him. “Is this true?”

“Yes,” Jakri and Adara both said, almost in unison. It was in their best interest to support the lie, for if word got out that they were healed by an Oraeliari, they would disgrace themselves as well as Dakari. They were his now, whether they liked it or not.

Madora shifted her gaze back to Dakari, and then frowned. “Why are you holding your head high like you expect some sort of reward?” she demanded.

“My lady?” Dakari asked, confused.

“I could hear the smugness in your voice,” she countered sourly. “You didn’t win any victories out there. You just survived. You think we can afford to award our people just for every day they go without dying?” She shook her head. “Nonsense.”

“My lady,” Dakari continued, with a furrowed brow. “For every Neiyari that was lost, three Oraeliari were killed. I managed to get these two back alive, and tell you what happened. Surely it’s better to lose nine fighters and know about it, than to lose a dozen fighters and not know? Ashara was in command. I merely salvaged her defeat. She is the one who must answer-”

“Ashara answered with her life,” Madora cut him off. “As you should have done. We live for Neiyara, we fight for Neiyara, and we die for Neiyara.”

We kill for Neiyara too, Dakari thought bitterly. Can’t do that if we’re dead, can we? But he kept that thought to himself, for to continue arguing with her would be seen as defiance, and would therefore be punished. Instead he allowed his expression to curl deeper into a frown.

“Go on,” Madora said after a moment, waving a dismissive hand. Dakari had first thought it was an invitation to speak his mind, but then she continued. “Leave,” she instructed. “When I send you into battle again, your courage will not be found wanting. Am I clear?”

He grit his teeth. She claimed he lacked courage? He who had stood against three foes at once, while she sat comfortably behind a desk? But he only nodded his head in response, as he was trained to do, and then left the building.

Dakari was sick of this. He was the best fighter here, and after the events of the previous day, perhaps the best leader. Yet his talents went underutilized, and underappreciated.

A sharp scream interrupted his resentful thoughts, and he clenched his fist in irritation.



Later that day…

The Oraeliari winced as the footsteps approached, knowing more pain was to come. His wounds had healed, but he could still recall the pain as the blades carved his skin. He could not even see his latest torturer, for it was too dark. There didn’t seem to be anyone else, either, which was rather strange: most of the time, his torture occurred in front of an audience. Still, he closed his eyes, and prepared himself for the pain that would inevitably follow.

Then a sharp blade ran across his throat. Blood surged forth from the wound, and he couldn’t breathe. He began to choke, and as he choked, he found himself growing increasingly light-headed, until finally, darkness took him, and he knew no more.



“Who did this!?” Madora demanded before the assembled village, as she stood before the Oraeliari’s corpse, still tied to the post with a slit throat. “I will find who did this. If they come forward now, their death will be swift. If not, they’ll take his place,” she gestured to the corpse.

None spoke. Dakari noticed Adara and Jakri were eying him somewhat nervously, correctly suspecting that he was responsible, but they said nothing.

It was Dakari who spoke next. “Why didn’t you have a guard watching him?” he asked.

Madora’s gaze rounded on Dakari with a stone-cold fury. “I do not need to justify myself to a worm like you,” she snarled. “Was it you?”

Dakari shook his head. “It was not. I’m just saying, though, if you had a guard watching over him… this wouldn’t have happened. To tell the truth, I don’t think you’re fit to lead us.”

Time seemed to stand still as Madora stared at him. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Everyone’s full attention was fixated on the two. Then, finally, Madora broke the silence by gesturing to two Neiyari next to Dakari. “Kill him.”

They hesitated, but then reached for their weapons. The hesitation killed them, for Dakari spun and swept his glaive across the throat of the one on his left, then thrust the butt of the weapon into the stomach of the Neiyari on the right. “Kill me yourself,” he spat toward Madora, as he began to advance. “I challenge you for leadership. Unless you’re too cowardly to accept?”

Her rage returned, and in a flash her sword was out. She rushed toward Dakari, and swung for his head. It was an impressive swing, all things considered; fast and powerful. Madora was no slouch in swordsmanship. However, it had been some time since she had last fought on the field of battle, and Dakari had seen the attack coming. He parried it, and then thrust his weapon into her gut.

But even with a blade in her stomach, she still put up a fight, swinging her sword at him again. Dakari’s left hand let go of the glaive and seized her wrist, stopping it before it could land. Madora glared at him with hatred, before suddenly losing her grip on the sword and slumping to her knees. He kicked her off his glaive, and turned to face the crowd.

“I have slain our chieftain, and claim leadership over the tribe!” he declared. “Does anyone dare contest me?”

Three did. One by one, they challenged him. One by one, he cut them down in single combat.

When it was over, he stood over the three bodies, and thrust his glaive into the ground. “It is settled, then. From this day forward, you answer to me! Unlike her, I’ll not throw your lives away on pointless skirmishes. When we battle, it will serve a purpose. I’ll have no more pointless torturings either, and when we make a deal, we will honour it. I’ll stand with you on the field of battle, and I’ll not sacrifice a single Neiyari without purpose. By the War Mother and the Consort, this I swear!”

A few actually voiced their approval at that. In truth, Dakari was not an unpopular man among the village. They respected him. It was part of why leaders such as Madora and Ashara had disdained him. He was popular, competent, and willing to question them when they misstepped. That made them think he was dangerous. And they were right, because Madora was dead and he now led in her place.

The rest accepted the decision as well. They might not have been particularly enthusiastic about Dakari, but they weren’t particularly loyal to Madora either. They cared little about who led them, so long as that leader was capable. A few, however, appeared resentful, and Dakari knew he would have to keep his eye on them.

Dakari was just about to order them back to their stations, when the sound of clapping could be heard within his mind.

Well done, well done! a deep voice boomed, and from the startled reactions of the other Neiyari, Dakari realized it was speaking to them as well. Though, I would thank you not to call me ‘The Consort.’ I am far, far more than that, the God of Perfection spoke with clear annoyance.

Anyhow, the God went on, You’ve made an oath in my name, and I expect you to honour it. In the meantime, I think I’ll name you my champion.

Dakari’s eyes widened. He had not expected this little coup to attract the attention of Cadiri. He was not the War Mother, but still… to have drawn the eye of a god? He fell to one knee, and the rest of the village quickly followed. “You, you honour me, my lord…” he said.

I do indeed, the God said, and Dakari felt the God’s blessing wash over him. The glow of his glaive turned from a golden light to a bright purple. It is rather uncommon to find such integrity among your kind. Many, in their shortsightedness, fail to see the purpose. Now go forth and lead your people to glory.

A small smile appeared on Dakari’s face. In just one day, he had gone from a common warrior to the leader of a tribe and the champion of a god. And in that moment, his mind swelled with ambition. He could become a Saint… or, failing that, an equal to them in all but name. The Neiyari would flock to him, and he would lead them to victory against their greatest enemy. Perhaps he might even rival Aveira…

He thought of the Oraeliari leader he had met earlier… Allura, was it? You should have tried to kill me, he thought. You had no idea…

He rose to his feet. “The God has spoken,” he declared. “I am Chosen. The rest of you, though, you still have work to do. Get back to it!”








The Council of Acadia


Eighteen years after Antiquity…




Queen Avelina of Acadia sat at her council chair with a disdainful expression, and brushed her blonde hair behind her merelli horns. These council meetings were tedious. They were necessary, and she always tried to give them her full attention, but they were still tedious. Her gaze briefly flickered toward the open balcony doors, where a cool breeze flowed in.

She looked at her human counterpart, King Hugon. The heads of state of Acadia were the King and the Queen. The King was always human and male, while the Queen was always a merelli female. The King and Queen were not actually married to one another, and kept their own consorts, but it was not uncommon for affairs to occur between the two. She had considered it, upon first rising to her title, and she knew he considered it too. Hugon had once been a handsome man. But now, he had aged. He was nearly forty, and his hair was beginning to grey. She no longer had an interest in him, and he recognized that.

She looked to the rest of the table, where the Pontiffs were debating about whether or not they should elevate the lesser Goddess Gibbou to the status of a major Goddess - and thus create an additional pontiff. Unsurprisingly, most were against it, for they did not want to create another political rival.

Yet a handful were insistent, and raised this issue at every meeting. There had been a recent incident where a garrison had been granted strange new equipment by that same goddess, and it was far more durable than any metal they had seen before. “If we show her more devotion,” the Pontiff of Oraelia, a human woman in her fifties, had argued, “she may grant us additional boons.”

“Such a thing would distract from other more worthy gods,” countered the Pontiff of Neiya, a Merelli with black hair. Avelina could not recall her age - it was always hard to tell, with a Merelli. The only way to be certain was to ask them directly, and the older ones were always reluctant to provide a truthful answer. “If we dedicate time and resources to praising Gibbou, that is time and resources which could instead go to the others, and they may take offense.” She took a sip from a goblet of wine.

The debate carried on, with each councillor voicing their opinion. Except Avelina. It didn’t matter. It was three against five. Even if she added her own vote in support of elevating Gibbou’s status, they would still be one vote short.

Eventually the matter was dismissed, and they moved on to other matters. Such as where they would deploy the soldiers Gibbou had supposedly equipped. Or to which units the strangely-waterproof weapons from the blessed forge should be given to. There was also the matter of a village which had been late on tribute payments. And finally, an update on the search for the daughter of the Pontiff of Aurius - she had still yet to be found.

These matters were traditionally considered to be under the purview of the King and Queen, and Avelina nodded along with Hugon’s suggestions. She was no puppet - far from it - but in this particular case the King’s advice had been sound, and the Queen saw no reason to dispute it beyond the occasional question for clarification.

It was better not to speak unless necessary, Avelina had long ago decided. They would think she was not paying attention. Or that she was accepting of what was going on around her. And thus, they would underestimate her. But, just like in war, the best way to lure your enemy into an ambush was to feign weakness. A few inexperienced pontiffs had already fallen for that trap, being caught off-guard by a sudden and unexpected barrage of rebuttals and criticisms from someone they did not even realize had been paying attention.

Eventually, the meeting came to a close, but before they could rise from their seats, there was the sound of a pair of feet striking the floor. They all turned.

Standing at the balcony was a silver-haired man with purple eyes, a bright purple traveller’s cloak, a white tunic, and an oaken staff. The Councillors leapt from their seats and took a step back.

“Who in Tekret’s name are you?” challenged a Pontiff, who represented the very god he invoked.

Overcoming her initial shock, Avelina quickly noticed another detail about the man. He was attractive. It was a struggle to tear her eyes away from his figure, and when she did, she found herself looking at the Pontiff of Neiya, who was also eying the stranger with a look of deep interest. That was rather surprising, since the Pontiff of Neiya had once told her in private that she never once found a single human to be attractive. The Pontiff noticed Avelina’s stare and flushed. Meanwhile, the Pontiff of Evandra - a man - had also been taken in by the stranger’s appearance, which seemed to fall in line with a rumour that had been going around for some time.

Avelina shook the thoughts off. He was an intruder! He shouldn’t be here! Her hand fell to the sword at her hip, and in the same moment both she and Hugon drew their weapons. “What is the meaning of this?” Hugon demanded. Two guards burst into the room shortly afterward, their own weapons raised.

The stranger smiled reassuringly. “I am Mekellos. The Avatar of Cadien.”

Whatever answer the council had expected, it was not that. “The only one in this room who speaks for Cadien is I,” the Pontiff of Cadien, a round-bellied man with greying hair, countered defiantly.

Mekellos frowned. “Is that so?” he asked. “Tell me, when was the last time you ever heard from my master? If you heard from him at all…” The Pontiff was about to issue a retort, but Mekellos continued speaking. “Pontiff Julien,” he went on. “You claim to speak for Cadien, yet he has never spoken to you a day in your life. You claim to embody his ideals, yet since taking his office you have grown fat and complacent.” Then Mekellos’s eyes narrowed, as he stepped closer and closer. “You poisoned your predecessor.”

Pontiff Julien’s face paled. Then Mekellos’s hand launched forward, closed around his throat, and lifted him a foot off the ground. King Hugon rushed forward and swung his sword at Mekellos, only for Mekellos to grab the weapon by the blade - it didn’t even break skin - wrench it from the King’s grip, and jam the pommel into the King’s stomach. The guards rushed forward, but Mekellos raised a dismissive hand. Suddenly they were out of breath, and too weak to even lift their spears. They collapsed to their knees.

The Pontiff’s eyes bulged, and his face turned red. “You’ve committed other crimes too,” Mekellos went on, in a cold tone. “You thought they were secrets. But I know…” Then the avatar tightened his grip, crushing throat, bone, and veins in a single squeeze.

He dropped the Pontiff to the floor with an expression of contempt. Then he waved his hand, and suddenly the guards were no longer wheezing for breath. He turned to regard the rest of the council. “Some of you are good,” he said after a moment. “Some of you… are not. Know this: your gods are watching. They always have been. If you are guilty, then I leave your punishment up to them.”

The Avatar approached Julien’s old seat, pulled out the chair, and sat down. “Now then,” he said lightly, as if the grisly sight of the Pontiff’s murder had not just occurred. “What’s the condition of the city?”




The Lord-Captain


Twenty-six years after Antiquity...




“Lord-Captain? A soldier has returned from Thyma, with a report.”

Lord-Captain Abbas Narek looked up at the aide, and frowned. “I would have expected my son to give me the report himself.”

They were in the Lord-Captain’s office. The Lord-Captain himself was seated at his desk, while the aide was in the doorway. As the Lord-Captain set a fresh piece of papyrus on the desk, and readied a quill, the aide gulped nervously. “My lord…” he said slowly. “He said your son is dead.”

The quill fell from Abbas’s hand. For a few moments, there was an agonizing silence, as he slowly looked up from the paper and he met the gaze of the aide who had spoke. ”What?”

“I… I’ll send the man in. He can explain it himself.” The aide bowed quickly and swiftly exited the room. A few moments later the soldier stepped in, looking just as nervous.

The soldier bowed awkwardly. “My lord.”

The Lord-Captain only stared at him.

The soldier gulped, and then hesitantly went on. “We went to Thyma, as you ordered us, my lord. We searched it. Standard practice. Then this man appeared. With white hair, and a strange sword. He attacked us, and the way he fought… I swear he was one of them vampires, but it was day. There was a mage with him too. Didn’t get a good look, might have been a witch, but ‘e was a man. After they attacked us, the village turned on us. I’m… I’m the only one left.”

“You are certain my son is dead?” Abbas asked in an icey tone.

“I am, my lord.”

Abbas’s hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist. “Explain to me,” he began coldly. “How thirty armed and disciplined men were killed by a bunch of unwashed savages in a village less than a decade old.”

“They had a vampire. And a witch, my lord.”

“In the day? Nonsense!” Abbas exploded, slamming his fist into the desk. “Tell me. Why didn’t you stay and fight with your comrades? With your commander? TELL ME!”

“I… my lord… there was nothing I could have done…”

Abbas fumed. But once again, the rage on his face seemed to settle into a cold malice. “No. There was something you could have done. Something you should have done. But you were too cowardly to do it.” Then he shouted, summoning the aide back into the room. “This man is a coward and a deserter,” the Lord-Captain said, gesturing at the soldier with his quill. “Take him outside and hang him.”

The aide shouted a command, and two guards who had been standing outside stepped in to seize the soldier by soldiers. He began to shout and protest as they dragged him away, begging for mercy, or forgiveness, or redemption, but Abbas was deaf to the pleas. Instead, his focus remained on the aide.

“Someone seeks to defy us,” he said, returning to his tranquil fury. “My son… must be avenged. Raise an army. Five hundred men. We march at sunrise.”

“My lord,” the aide protested. “It’s a long journey. Those men require supplies. It will take a few days at least to secure enough…”

“We’ll take what we need on the way there!” Abbas snapped. “We can’t give this insurrection time to fester. Sunrise, I said!”

“But the King…”

“Damn the King!” Abbas’s fist struck the table again. “He’s a puppet. The army is mine!” It was not an entirely accurate statement, but Abbas didn’t give a damn. He had sent his son to raid the rebuilt Thyma as a political move, to succeed where the son of the last Lord-Captain had failed, and prove that his house was better-suited to the title.

Instead, his son and an entire warband had been slaughtered by savages. To let that go unanswered would be to shame not just his house, but Ketrefa as a whole. The King might be angry that he marched off to war without permission, but Abbas knew the fallout would be even greater if he did nothing to avenge this insult. Besides, he yearned for vengeance. The animals killed his son. And they would pay.

The Lord-Captain slept poorly that night, thoughts of vengeance keeping him awake. In the morning, he arrived at the gate to find five hundred men assembled. The only supplies they had were what they could wear or carry. They attempted to exit the gate, but the local gate commander refused. Neither the King nor the Captain of the Gates had provided notice that an army would be leaving the city, and word of the incident at Thyma had yet to spread.

In the end, the gate commander eventually yielded, after sufficient threats had been issued. And. The gates were opened, and the column of soldiers marched out.

For the first time in decades, a Ketrefan army was on the march. No mere warband, but a proper army; five hundred strong and with a Lord-Captain marching at its head. Thyma would burn. His son would be avenged. The killer would be flayed alive. Inch by bloody inch. “By Neiya, I swear it…” he vowed.




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