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I have been writing as a hobby for around seventeen years now (wow does that make me sound old). I have been a regular member and roleplayer on no less than eight different online forums during that time (including the old RPG), five six of which no longer exist.

I was previously a regular on the Homestuck forums, but I became so sick of thread turnover there that I asked around and eventually found the Guild. Since joining, I have exclusively only participated in Advanced RPs. Before Mahz gave NRPs their own subforum, I used to be an NRP regular in the Advanced Subforum.

If you ask anybody who has written with me in previous RPs, they should tell you that I have a generally open schedule, I post regularly and in a timely fashion, and I never drop an RP once I join unless the thread dies. Some of them may tell you that I have extensive expertise within the realms of Biology, Psychology, and Physics, which I will make no effort to validate since there is no way I can provide hard proof of aforementioned alleged expertise to anybody over the internet (though I am happy to try and answer any questions you send my way).

My favorite fandom is the Myst franchise, which seemingly nobody other than me has ever heard of.

I have been quadruple secret banned from the guild chat. That is not a joke.

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Empire of Matathran -8- The Dictatorship of Morkt

The Vulgate River Crossing - Contested Territory

Some time after the formal meet at the Serifine bridge, the myriad representatives, officials, and soldiers had vacated the bridge, save for a token number of the massive, armored Golot vanguards who stood at attention, guarding the bridge's center in an almost ceremonial gesture. A while after Trygve had made shore once more, a Matathran messenger had derisively appeared, full of pomp and pretense, and announced that the Grand Marshal awaited 'you profligates' at the other side of the bridge, wishing to discuss logistics, tactics, and other material affairs of the new alliance in the Glacial Marshes. Having made their way across the bridge, the Morj party encountered the same figure who had made parlay with the Dutchess - the figure armored in the strange carapace armor, billowing folds of shimmering silk wavering just underneath and a hooded veil of the material still obscuring his face.

Tafari's hidden gaze seemed to linger on Trygve for several moments before he turned his gaze to the other members of the party. "Forgive me if this seems forward, but whom amongst you leads?"

Trygve wrung the water from his soaked hair before flipping it back across his shaved sides and neck. A wry smile similar to that on the bridge accompanied him. However a deep growling voice took over before Trygve could return the summons.

“Trygve is our lead. Do not be too rude to him, lest he will take a liking to you.” The hulking shaman, clad in thick fur cape and ornate helm of antlers, spoke with an air of discontent.

“I am Radoslaw, High Pleague of Her Mistress. Though Trygve may not know who you are, he is alone in this... and many things…” Radoslaw gave an emotionless glance over to Trygve who continued to dry off in good spirits. “However, I keep the souls and the bodies of our men. Those who take to the land remain indebted to the water. And thus I am the keeper of these oaths. In the end, the lives of this mission fall to me.”

"I see." Tafari said in a clipped tone that conveyed how very little he thought of what Radoslaw had just said. "Before we proceed any further, it is imperative for you all to understand that the larger part of her Empress' armed forces are of castes which...broadly proscribe certain kinds of interactions with foreigners. Most of the Auxiliaries are not even permitted to speak with you at all barring exigent circumstances. Many of them will also have...trying reactions to pieces of your ensemble. Those collars are...reminescent of those we use for our own chattel." Tafari's gaze turned to Trygve again. For a brief moment it looked as if he were about to pose a question to him, but the moment passed and he turned his attention to Radoslaw instead.

“They are a somber reminder to our oath. Forged in the deeps of our world they bind us to the Morj. They burn when we stray too far from our charge, sink when we swim reckless in Her waters, and whisper to us The Voice which calls to us from all ends of the earth.” Radoslaw responded matter factly.

"I see. So though he is granted broad discretion...this one is nominally your charge." Tafari looked between Radoslaw and Trygve, their self-satisfied tone conveying that they had just pieced together some puzzle only they had seen. "I will issue instruction that you are to be assigned the honorary caste status of High Invigilator for your own coterie, and the remainder of your party will be afforded the treatment accorded chattel normally associated with such individuals. You may freely address any and everybody within the encampment, your followers may do so by order or with inferred purpose. They shall also be free of molestation outside of emergency situations. Is this arrangement to your satisfaction?"

“I must remain with my men at all times. Their souls and bodies cannot go untended. It must be permissible that what rank you give me may not take me from their company. If that is suited by your words, then I accept your title and the weight it bares me and my kin.”

"Of course. Such an arrangement is quite feasible." Tafari said easily. "Now, come. We needs have speak with the Marshals of these armies. We shall discuss our ends and what duties lay ahead of us." He beckoned the party to follow, turned, and headed into the encampment proper. Radoslaw and Trygve followed in turn, their retinue of raiders shortly behind.

"For what it's worth, Good Marshal. I really just wear this thing for the fashion of it." Trygve added quietly, adjusting his collar before joining the assembled march onward.

"That is Grand Marshal." Tafari corrected Trygve without even breaking stride.

The encampment was harmony borne of chaos. The tents seemed to be formed up in an incomprehensible, staggered arrangement, with groups forming malformed circles of some kind, all interlinking with one another with alleys just wide enough for passage by carriage in side-winding footpaths. Men and women alike clustered together in isolated cells, each curving crescent-quarter of tents unto its own microcosm. The soldiery were clearly segregated in some formalized fashion, though they intermingled amongst their neighbors in an incomprehensible fashion. The causeways of tents were only broken by the occasional latrine or watchtower, and here and there, by what must have been supply depots centered around clusters of baggage wagons and carriages, or else what seemed to be field-workshops, men and women working in and around siege engines and pieces thereof littering the ground. Those soldiers the Morkt envoys passed either made concerted efforts to avoid so much as looking at them, while others subjected them to stares ranging from curious, to cool, to faintly insidious. Looks that made clear that no matter how high the status of those they associated with, they were still alien. In spite of this, Trygve and his crew strode with undeserving confidence through their ranks, the seeping sludge of the Glacial Marshes still clinging to their modest apparel.

Although none amongst the encampment stopped to so much as acknowledge the Grand Marshal as he lead the envoy through the encampment, there was a clear, invisible wake of influence around him, best discerned in the fashion in which all obstruction to their passage through the encampment seemed to almost magically vanish moments after perceiving it. They made quick passage through the crowded area, arriving at a massive, two-storied tent, large enough to occupy an entire quarter of its own. Two of the giant, platemail-wearing warriors wielding flanged maces stood at attention by the tent flap, much in the same manner of the two stationed by the bridge. They did not stir as the group passed them by.

The interior of the tent was lavish beyond expectation, as far as could be expected of such a temporary structure. Wooden paneling partitioned separate segments of the interior, with banners and tapestries hanging from the makeshift walls. The ground had been tiled over with plain but serviceable slate squares, and the tell-tale creak of footsteps above them told of wooden floorboards and wiring hidden above the fabric stretched across the ceiling. The first room was a simple, wide, empty space with several racks of weapons and armaments, several brusque guardsmen standing by who divested most of the envoys of their weapons, save for Radoslaw and Trygve, who Tafari waved for the guards to exclude from their attention.

Tafari then led the group through several interior chambers - many of which were occupied by wooden desks and cabinets, several high-ranking officers creating a ruckus of noise muffled between each room as they argued and pored over parchments and documents, more plainly-dressed aides swarming around each like a miniature court. Finally, the group arrived at a larger room with a segmented slate table, topped with laquered wood. High-backed chairs upholstered with dyed leather were stationed around it, and an actual carved wooden model of the glacial marshes occupied, if somewhat awkwardly and jutting in places, the tabletop, with figurines and pinned flags occupying parts of it. Near the front of the table by the awning the group entered through, a pewter and silver platter with jugs of what was presumably wine and several slate cups were arrayed. Three individuals adorned in ornate, if still functional armor awaited them. One was a woman in her autumn years, regal in poise save for the skeletal stub where her nose used to be. Another woman with long creepers of braided hair and a dark complexion looked with a flat expression at the large group as they filtered into the meeting room, and near the head of the table stood an older human male with weathered skin, a missing right arm, and a glinting glass left eye.

"Grand Marshal. We were not expecting so many...attendant chattel. Must they all be present for this?" The dark-skinned woman asked. Her voice was perfectly deadpan, without irritation or displeasure, but far from content.

“Well met your Highnesses.” The furred figure of Radoslaw placed a clenched fist across his left chest and bowed deeply. The great ax stood in his left hand, its head placed on the slate ground firmly in good gesture. “I am Radoslaw, High Pleague of Her Mistress, High Queen of Morkt and Protector of Water. Among me are my charge, whose souls must remain in the company of. I seek your forgiveness in the manner of our dress. We have traveled long and hard through the marshes to be in your presence. Such a journey could not endure finer cloth, nor risk the notice of its bearing.” Radoslaw spoke with his eyes fixed downward in humility, lest one of their rank be the famed warrior queen of whom lore of had traveled far and wide.

"Highnesses...?" The noseless woman uttered the word as though it were an invective.

"These are Marshals Parodna, Rhesus, and Garderome. You may refer to them as such." Tafari quickly covered for Radoslaw, indicating the noseless woman, the dark-skinned woman, and the armless Marshal in turn.

"Them not being able to depart from your company is problematic. We have sensitive tactical matters to discuss. They should not even be in the tent." Rhesus scowled. "Can you at least have them in an adjacent room?"

Trygve gave a quick click of the tongue and gestured back toward the entrance with his head. The rest of the Morkt retinue immediately made themselves scarce, heading back to the front of the tent complex from which they came. "You are in luck, Marshal Rhesus. I am Trygve, the sensitive man with whom you should discuss." Trygve said with a small bow, perhaps awkwardly trying to model Radoslaw's. Rhesus recoiled as if she had been struck.

"...Profligate dreck...!" She seethed.

"You speak out of turn, chattel. High...pleagooaugh Radoslaw? Who is this attendant of yours? Do they have a pressing need to remain?" Garderome demanded, struggling only momentarily with the unfamiliar foreign title.

"This is Trygve Ulfragson, Wave of the North, Ax of the Deep, Tamer of Wyrms, Bane of Fangs, and leader of the Morkt forces who bear the land as their home. His presence is paramount to our cause." Radoslaw interjected, apathetic to his fumbled title by the Marshal.

"Radoslaw has been granted the assignation of High Invigilator, and his coterie are to be treated as though they were assigned by duty." Tafari offered shortly in turn. "From what they have told me, Trygve here is allegedly a...semi-autonomous agent."

The three Marshals directed their attention to gawk at Trygve openly. Trygve smiled at them as he strode to the slate jugs atop the table. He picked one up and chugged it viciously, laps of its red liquid leaking from the corner of his mouth. With a wipe of his cheek he raised his cup to Grand Marshal Tafari in a thanking manner. "From water to water, my friend." He toasted before returning his gaze to the ornate map before them, his focus now singly on the table at hand. "Now tell me how to win this war." Trygve offered as he read into every bump in topography before them.

Parodna audibly scoffed as she moved back around the table, while Rhesus simply muttered something atrociously impolite under her breath, crossing her arms as she took to one of the chairs around the table and seated herself. Garderome, gazing carefully at Trygve with his one good eye as though they were inspecting a new horse, slowly answered.

"It's simple. The Emerald Empire cannot hope to directly contest our armies here. They have many more forces to the North, but they are several weeks, even months of travel away for a mustered force. By that time we will have secured the region. Unless..." He gestured to the numerous green pinned flags littering the central area of the Glacial Marshes. "Their harassing remnant forces can, through attrition, reduce our numbers such that we cannot hold the territory. That will be the treefolk's goal. They cannot win the battle of the Glacial Marshes. They but seek to weaken us for the future war that may come after. So to win, our forces need must simply perservere and take only minimal losses to attrition by the treefolk."

"Most of them, clearly, will be based within the marshes themselves, and reinforcements are expected to make route by way of the river Sem and the Dreichport delta." Parodna tapped the two river systems one after the other on the model map. "Our baggage trains, as a precaution, are being vouchsafed by the Questor Order Secular, who were originally planned to do with such nuisance directed at our supply train. However, beyond the last river crossing at the River Sem, we shall destroy the bridge and make way South of the river itself. Our goal is the marshlands, and we have no desire to challenge the fortifications and forces North of the river. Our forces will be slowed as they create a new pathway on the spot during march, making the terrain passable by our siege engines and wagons." She indicated a patch of clearer terrain to the Northwest of the marshes, half of which was occupied by raised representations of crop-fields. "It is here where progress will be slowest and the armies most vulnerable."

"Well, it appears you may have purchased a prized horse at bargain. My Mistress, a merfolk of my land, currently tides the good will of Rayneid in the Bay of Lights. Whether or not her negotiations are successful, the folk there will not heavily impede her onslaught to the shores. As we speak a great host of merfolk swim the bay. She has placed many marbles on your gamble and will make their assault on Dreichport if given the word. However, if no call comes, I am sure she will find whichever opportunity best suits her needs or spares her armada. However, she means to make for the delta of Dreichport with her merfolk and men. It is an unprotected shanty town which has long tantalized her with its upturned belly. My kin, great raiders and warriors of boat, will stand no match in pitched battle. We do not line up and fight in pretty cloths like you. But they are honed to the task of razing that town and sowing destruction in the marshlands. We too hail from such glacial bogs, and though we do not know the make of its land I am sure your allies in Shenra would enlighten us." Trygve continued to peer at the map, not once glancing at the Matathran officers.

"It would suit us well to have my Mistress destroy the bridge here and here," Trygve pointed at the confluences of road and river east of Dreichport and south of Crinwaley respectively. "Though I doubt she would cast many merfolk into the shallows of rivers or marsh--lest they be gigged like frogs--she will do well to plug off entry into Dreichport or Crinwaley of her own accord. I must again say," Trygve looked up breifly at the Marshals, "my men will be lost if they march openly onto these farmlands which lay before you. Ours is a force which I will not see thrown under hoof or against castle walls for fodder." The end of Trygve's speech turned from clinical to passionate as the muscle in his jaws tightend into knots.

"Which is just as well. We do not expect you to fight our war for us." Rhesus said almost dismissively. "You claim your people are masters of the marshlands? That is where our enemy is arraigned. It is from there they will attempt to whittle away at our superior forces. So it follows, it would seem, the best way for you to..." She almost seemed to gag on the words. " us our war...would be for you to permeate the marshlands and the riverways and cull the treefolk and their allies therein."

Trygve studied the map longer before speaking again. "May I ask what other factions are spokes to this wheel? How do the Blood Lords feel about your quest to sever them from Yaval? What nations guard your Eastern back or gnaw at its exposed hide? And what of the men of Shenra who seek to expand their reign North of the river you dare not pass? We come from a simple island surrounded by void. But you swim in a tangled web with factions below you, beside you, and within."

"You concern yourself overmuch with affairs beyond your purview. You need not grow restless from consideration of Lynn-Naraksh or those powers surrounding Matathran. Focus your will solely upon this region of the Emerald Empire." Garderome tapped pointedly on the wooden model with his one hand, his tone conspiratorial in nature. "As you say, you are not familiar with the ways of the mainland. We are. We shall inform you of what factors merit your attention when you come in need of the knowing."

Trygve peered at Marshal Garderome, not in disrespect but in utter focus. "After your word is given, my kin will be alone in this marsh." He pressed his finger firmly on where the Marshal had previously tapped. "We will have nothing but whispered voices to guide us, if word reaches us at all. It is imperative we know whether legions of Scourge Knights will cut off the Southern mountain pass and block our river's egress. It is imperative we know what allies will come to the aid of Yaval. These things we ask of you as allies. Allies who have planned this campaign for decades. The hand cannot swing its blade when it is severed from the mind."

"It is as you say, profligate." Rhesus said cooly. "We have planned this campaign for decades. Fortuitously, our enemies, despite their knowing of this, have not. The Scourge Knights of the Blood Lords are not mustered and amassed to march on the Western pass. Those few which dwell near the border, should they wish to intervene, would must do so with great haste and few in number. The forces of Lynn-Naraksh are disparate and wide. To assemble them with sufficient strength to challenge you alone might take years. As of last report by our agents, they have yet to even begin doing so."

"There is no knowing who might come to Yaval's aid. It is scarcely conceivable further still who might be willing and can arrive in time. It is beyond fathoming what force is willing, able to traverse the way in a timely manner, and prevail over our forces." Parodna added. "None might come. The whole of the world might come. Only the most absurd of contingencies predict that any other nation will interfere with enough celerity and wit of force to sway the outcome."

"What Marshal Parodna says is true." Tafari said calmly from behind Trygve. "To more directly answer your inquiry though, the forces best able and most likely to intervene would be the raiders of Clan Brakor of Tarkima, who our agents claim are on agreeable terms with the Emerald Empire. Likewise, any other form of timely intervention by nearly any other power must likely come by way of the sea, and the Bay of Lights...though for what purpose any would seek such folly is too far beyond pretense to predict."

"It should also be noted, that any form of intervention - even if it be assumed it should be launched as of this very moment - even traversing rapidly across the Northern waters, they will only just arrive in time as we make for Dreichport from below the last crossing of the River Sem. These forces would only realistically be able to confront us openly in the fields; or else not at all, unless they seek to satisfy themselves attacking our baggage train from the marshes." Garderome concluded. "And we are well prepared for the possibility of waging fiery siege against these forces if they should attempt to stand fast at our destination."

Trygve nodded his head in quiet contemplation. This map was a gold mine to him, and he wanted to drink in every inch. He was sure when the conversation ended so too would his access to its riches. "And so I take it me and my fellow profligates, "the word hung on his tongue an extra second, "should return West..."

"Not unaccompanied." Tafari reached out over the map, the glimmering folds of his silk robes hanging over it like an aurora as he picked up a pin bearing a Matathran emblem on it. "It is important that you bring with you a token attachment from our own forces in order to facilitate..." He paused as moved the pin towards the Coast, hesitating as his hand hovered in place over Dreichport. "...fluid tactical mobility. Coordination is key."

Trygve was slightly taken off guard, peering at the Grand Marshal as if to decypher his intent. "And who do you propose to seginate with our ranks? The trip through the marsh is dark and weary. It is not a place for shiny armors or shiny prides." His words were skeptical at best.

Tafari turned his veiled helm to look at Trygve, and for the first time the Morj warrior felt the other man's presence, a sort of sensation akin to that of treading over anothers' grave, the indication that for the first time the other man was finally meeting his eyes.

"I spent twenty years fighting thousands of giant spiders in the dark, underground, in partially flooded caverns." He stated matter-of-factly.

"Now Grand Marshal, I am sure this...chattel does not know better. The Morj likely know not of the thirty-years war with the Spider Councils." Garderome commented idly.

"Matathran has a superfluity of irregulars and other forces ideal for fighting in such perilous environments like the marshes. The Grand Marshal does not exaggerate in his claim, we have many veterans of the war with the Spider Councils. I believe the Grand Marshal intended to accompany you personally, as his word and tactical decisions will have the next best weight of our authority besides the Empress herself." Parodna added almost sardonically as she looked with something approaching a mocking expression at Trygve, looking for any hint of give in his own.

Trygve's gaze did not leave Tafari even at the accost of Parodna's words. There was more to this man, and it was the first time Trygve even believed that to be possible. "So be it. But know that my men answer to me. Our fate in this war is not our own, and we not be the pawn of two hands. If you can accept that, you are welcome aboard my boat. I trust that you will prove the words these Marshals offer on your behalf."

"I will only be attending so that I may make clear Matathran's own tactical considerations and plans, so that the Morj may determine for themselves what actions are appropriate." Tafari replied. "And also, of course, to bring anguish and flame to my enemies. So it is as you said. You and your fellow Profligates shall return West, with myself and a spare platoon. We will rendevouz with the forces of your betters, and prepare to take our own campaign of attrition to the forces in the glacial marshes and along the riverways."

"Splendid," Trygve relplied, the slightly unhinged smile returning to his face. He approached the remaining chalices of wine and drew out a short seax from behind his back, winking playfully at Marshal Garderome and his single arm. With a smooth motion Trygve made a small slice in his left palm and leaked a few drops of maroon fluid into the simliarly hued drinks. He picked up the two glasses and approached Tafari confidently. "I quite hate spiders. It will be good to have someone versed in cleaning their cobwebs," Trygve offered with a smile as he extended out one of the bloodied glasses of wine. "Blood and honor, friend." Trygve raised his own glass in toaste.

"Do not make me soak you a second time." Tafari snapped, slapping the proferred drink away. "I will only toast to victory, with those worthy of the merit. Both are presently absent." He moved away from Trygve and looked to Radoslaw. "If there is anything you wish to relay to us of your own forces or their agenda, this is the time to do so."

Trygve refered his eyes over to Radoslaw as he drank his own cup in bemusement. The Morkt shaman was slow to answer. "We are named aptly for our trade. Plagues they call us. Like the places of land are a boil on the sea, we forge equal pestilence for the undeserving of its inhabitants. Every plaguer experiments with their own brews. Chief among mine are those which rot bark like flesh. Blights, smuts, molds, wilts. Long have we searched for an opportunity to put these weapons to cause. Their effect is slow and admittedly does not distinguish once it takes foot, nor will it heed a stop when the passions of war recede. But if you are willing to accept that price, my Mistress would smile on such black death befalling the treekin." Radoslaw finally gave a slight upward turn of the lips, as if attempting a show of pleasure.

Silence fell as everyone in the room turned to stare at Radoslaw with mixed expressions ranging from confusion to outrage.

"...What I meant to say, was that if you wished to clarify your Mistress' exact plans as of this current moment, now would be the time to do so." Tafari settled on eventually, his voice somewhat quieter in tone than before. "Know that while Matathran will pursue any end it pleases to secure victory, intentionally spreading plague has not yet proven itself necessary."

Trygve wipped the collateral wine from his face and answered the Grand Marshal's query instead. "She will avoid the holy sanct of the Rayneids. Even if they will not support her, she wouldn't waste political capitol on their grievance. She worships the creature in their tomb afterall." Trygve continued inspite of Radoslaw's pericing glare at these last words. "She will avoid the fortified ports of Eysterguile and Crinwaley, but the later of those she will blockade with a sizable force so as to deter reinforcing South by river Sem. The mouth of the Bay of Lights will be clogged with enough force to harrass intruders and monitor those entering. Her main attentions will be south at Dreichport. They will mean to isolate that grove by sea and sack the human town with or without the aid of its loyalist population. However, while the Morj are unmatched at open water, they would never take to land in force. Any fight on soil would have to be won by the vast raidband which sails in concert with the Morj. They will make landfall south of Dreichport at the birth of it's delta. In what places the rivers and swamps of this land run deep, it is possible my Mistress will send token forces of Morj. However I would count her main efforts to be in the waters of the deep where her strengths are maximized and her risks acceptable."

"Then let it be known that the Morj shall be of great use should the Emerald Empire attempt to reinforce by the sea. However, that was never a course of great concern for us." Parodna stated. "You indicated she might send a token force into the marshes, but a token force will not suffice. They are dispersed, but there is an army therein, make no mistake." She tapped one of the figurines on the model - what looked like an actual rook from a game of Kings. "If you wish to sway the course of our plans, the Morj must send sufficient forces into the marshes so as to deter their own ability to attrition our forces marching to the North."

"And that is why I am here." Trygve replied curtly as if having to repeat himself. "The entire land army of Morkt has been called to this, the greatest of all raids. Our homelands are but a skeleton of old and young. I do not pretend that my men and women staff the fields with such number and structure as the army I stand amongst. However, this force will be more than enough to upheave the bogged treekin no matter how deep their roots... Provided you can keep them from reinforcing from the North... This will be a fight on our terms, not under badges or banners, not deep in the misty woods. The Morj will condone the vile acts it takes to win in the marsh, but they will be in distaste to endure its acts on their souls."

"The enemy will be unable to reliably reinforce from the North." Garderome supplied, picking up a handful of pins with crimson flags with his one good arm. He started to plant them one-by-one along the Southern coast of the modeled river Sem. "As Matathran advances along the Northern road, we shall destroy each crossing and bridge we come across. Our forces shall erect, on the spot, watchtowers and temporary forts, each with their own garrison and with engines to deter most from attempting to cross by other means." He glanced pointedly up at Trygve. "And of course, any Morj forces present within the river itself would also further preclude such efforts."

Trygve took his emptied chalice and placed it firmly on Dreichport, mirroring the use of figurines on the board. "And so the Morkt will move in on the South. Excising the Dreich grove of Yaval from its allies. We will sack the city of men and use its plunder to supply our foray deep into the marsh. We will let my brothers," Trygve placed a heavy arm on Radoslaw's shoulder, "do their deed, and we will see the West rot from within and without."

Rhesus reached out with a hand and easily toppled the empty chalice onto its side. "What are you talking about? Were you to raze Dreichport now, the loyalists and Shenra would be furious." She asked, danger in her tone.

Trygve gave a grimace and careened his neck, perhaps the thought of not raiding such an easily won village bringing pain to him. "Noted. And so we are to wave at them," he gestured with his hand, "as we take to the marsh? They will surely make themselves a threat to the delta. A threat to our supply in a war of attrition. Unless you are sure that the limp manhood of Shenra can still find its perks in contesting that town."

"The town of Dreichport is, as you are well-aware, brimming with Shenra loyalists and sympathizers. We have been assured that they will welcome our arrival with open arms. Our true purpose in even marching on the town is so that we may dispose of the Dreaming Grove to its immediate North." Rhesus gestured to the prominent jade figurine next to the town by the coast. "Do you suppose you can raze it as well? If not, it will not matter if Dreichport is gone. As it is now, its populace may well assist with your resupply and logistics."

Trygve gave a curious nod at the news of Dreichport's support. He had never received such helpfulness from mainlanders before, particularly not on the Northern sea's coast. "Your arrival is not quite the same as my arrival. So it may be useful to be seen arm in arm with your shiny men afterall. My men have made few attempts on groves, and for good reason. They are a fortification of their own. But perhaps with such long term inclinations to this raid, they can be softened enough to warrant seige. However, this will take much time. Perhaps the boils of such buisness can be left to fester while we take to the marsh."

"An endeavor we will appreciate once we ourselves arrive." Garderome declared. "If that is everything, I believe our business here together is concluded."

"Excellent," Trygve replied, standing with his hands clasped at the waist attempting with great pains to mirror the regal poise of those around him. He proffered his nose slightly to the air as he waited to be issued social direction, lest his attempts at affection be met with still more slapping royal hands. Radaslow merely bowed slightly, having said his piece.

"Come then, I'll need to introduce you two to those who will be accompanying us." Tafari gestured for Trygve and Radoslaw to follow him as he made for the awning leading back to the previous room. "Marshals, a pleasure. As you were."


As Tafari led the Morkt through the encampment once more, weaving in a sidewinding trail between quarters of tents, he spoke sternly to Trygve and Radoslaw. "The soldiers that will be accompanying us are all veterans of the thirty-years war. All of them are experts fighting in uneven wetlands and brush, even in low-light conditions, against physically superior and numerous foes. I am more patient than I should be with your bettling...charms shall we say, but if you dare to afford them anything less than the utmost respect I will set you on fire, chattel. Am I clear?"

"If they can drink as well as they fight, they have my respect," Trygve offered with a smile before quickly continuing. "They are well to have a leader who cares for them like you. Truly." Trygve paused, the wry grin now absent from his lips. He continued walking. "I wish to know more of your spider war." Trygve offered.

"Nearly...forty-two years ago, I believe, the eight Spider Councils in the underworld fell in awe to the hatred Garo held for Andromache." Tafari stated briskly as they walked along. "They coerced thousands of Agate Spiders into swarming across the vale, killing every living thing they encountered. Had the region still been comprised of disparate kingdoms, scholars hypothesize the event would have led to the extinguishing of all civilized life in all of Matathran, as well as the Crossroads. Andromache led the newly united forces of the three founding Kingdoms against the Agate Spites. For ten years, we fought simply to drive the Agate Spites from our lands. Then, we chased them into the dark of the underworld."

He paused for several moments, not saying anything, his pace slowed considerably. He almost stopped on the spot for a brief moment before seeming to remember where he was and resumed walking.

"We fought them in the underworld for two decades. Until Garo was slain and the remaining seven Councils were left bereft of their awe. They fell into disharmony again, and the Agate Spites vanished overnight."

"Do you not fear these beasts will return? Reunite under their oath for revenge?" Trygve asked with tangible intrest.

"No." Tafari said simply. "The Spider not think as men do. Reason and rational thought mean nothing to them. The notion of vengeance, I think, would never cross their minds...unless it 'twere suggested to them. Even then, I doubt they would value the idea. The individual councils are vastly self-absorbed. Them uniting under Garo was..." Tafari hesitated. "Markedly unusual."

"I am not a wise man, but every creature I have known feels the loss of their kin. We all hope for a better future for our peoples. And all creatures are willing to fight for that. I hope for you and your peoples these things-" "The main diet of the Agate Spider consists predominantly of other Agate Spiders." Tafari interrupted pointedly.

"Well then, I hope you remain salty, least they develop the taste." Trygve returned with wrinkles at his eyes.

Tafari turned around and stared at Trygve abruptly. "That is the first intelligent quip you have uttered thus far." He said flatly.

"It is a long boatride through the marsh. I think you will find there is much time left to surprise you." Trygve said with a tilt of the head, arms raised in gesture.

"Utter any quip, however clever, at the expense of my soldiers, and I will be sure to have it engraved on your headstone." Tafari responded. Trygve thought he heard the first hint of true anger in the silk-garbed man's voice before he turned around and continued leading the party onwards. To this Trygve simply smiled and gave a soft nod of the head.

"It shall also be noted that these veterans are all men and women of some significant status. Their respective castes are well-earned, and the deference owed them exceeds any to be afforded to Profligate chattel the likes of you and the other slaves." Tafari waved a flippant hand back at Trygve as they walked by, ignoring the blatant hypocrisy in insulting his counterpart's men as readily as he threatend Trygve over the very thought of insulting his. "Not all of them have profound caste privilege however, and as such their social interactions with you and the others will necessarily be limited. I will not overlook such things; as Grand Marshal I am their exemplar. Their restrictions will be laxer than if they were to remain here, but I nonetheless ask for your patience in handling their intolerance for idle chatter with you."

"Perhaps my chatter is not idle. Perhaps a bat does not waste its breath in calling out to the night." Trygve let his words dangle before continuing, a slight lick of frustration in his tone. "I do not really care how you address me or my men, or whether your kind will do the same. Words are a ghost's whip. What I care about is my men's lives. If those are well kept, then you may speak down from the highest stack of your titles. However, I assure you my men will be alive to hear it."

Tafari did not reply. He continued to walk, his pace brisk and unchanging. If the words registered to him, he did not show it.

He eventually led them to a particular quarter of tents, seemingly no different from any other in the encampment. The soldiers within though, were realms apart from the others Trygve had seen. They were comprised of men and women wearing half-cloaks over plate-jacks, which the Morkt warrior took a moment to recognize beyond their external appearance as simple cloth vestments. Accompanying the vestments was light and unobtrusive chainmail, the individual links much smaller and frailer than was normal but producing noticeably less noise as the warriors moved. They also bore gauntlets, spaulders, and greaves - still wearing less than might have been expected of a true frontline soldier, but adequately well-armored nonetheless. They all bore singularly distinctive blades which Trygve recognized immediately. He had seen them on occasional prior raids along the mainland, wielded by victims of various backgrounds with equally various degrees of skill - but given the uniform nature of these figures and their armaments, it was doubtless now that the weapons had all originated from Matathran. They were long curved blades made of a dark metal, and at the head of their tips was a triangular spike that extended back out of the reverse side of the blade. Each of the veterans bore at least one at their side; some had the audacity to carry two at once. Others still bore quarterstaves and composite bows, and Trygve spotted several sets of discreetly placed throwing knives about their persons. Now that he had a uniform to place with the more commonly-seen weaponry, he knew exactly who these men and women were.

These veterans were all members of the Questor Order Secular - Matathran's organization of, for lack of a better term, wandering warrior adventurers.

Both Trygve and Radoslaw had seen and heard of the Matathran's before them, though never under the banner of Andromache

Although technically part of Matathran's armed forces, the Questors were not often seen in battle, as their purpose and duties lay elsewhere. Inspired by the same order of Questors used by the Kings and Queens of Cra'dal prior to the formation of the Empire, the Questor Order Secular was made up of men and women whose sole purpose was to journey and adventure through the lands, documenting what they found and saw and acquiring items of interest for the Imperial Administration. Said to have been trained by the predecessors and fellows of Egil Guiomar, the Questors mimicked his own style and method of fighting. While they existed officially, they often traveled anonymously in foreign lands without identification beyond their distinctive gear, mapping and surveying them far in advance of any kind of armed conflict.

Although not explicitly trained in the ways of stealth and infiltration, skills which the First Questor was infamous for, a Questor did not get very far in the profession without some first-hand practical experience in the subject. Most Questors thought nothing of slipping by city gates, over walls, or by checkpoints unseen and unheard, although their ability to do so nonetheless varied considerably.

As Tafari led the Morkt envoys into the small clearing of the quarter, the Questors all immediately began to assemble in an orderly semi-circle as an additional number of individuals filtered in from outside the quarter and lined up in more formal ranks to either side of the gathering - between the Questors and the gathered irregulars, who seemed simply to be ordinary examples of Matathran's scouts, there were perhaps thirty warriors altogether.

The group of ten Morkt who had accompanied Trygve's boat mirrored the precesion, but as an unorganized cluster. Their plain black gambisons were only accented by the light shields strapped to their back with loose axes and saexs dangling from their persons. It was notable how finely engraved both the weapons and shields were. Looping vissages of seahorses sometimes inlaid in copper and bronze. Their tools were true art, even if their looks were otherwise paled by the company before them.

"Observations stand; your status is affirmed." Tafari said to his gathered soldiers easily, waving at them with a gesture of ease. The words seemed to be magical in nature, as the warriors all visibly relaxed in posture and expression. "Questor Levia, Outrider Hecuba, present yourselves. You will be accounting your respective halves of the platoon to honorary High Invigilator Radoslaw, Envoy of the Morkt. Afford him and his chattel due deference."

The individuals in question were both women. The Questor, Levia, had long greying hair tied in a single braid that was tucked underneath her clothing. Her ears had faint tips to them, signifying her Elvish descent, and her features were fairer than one of her age should have been, though she otherwise seemed Human in peerage. She was not altogether fitted differently than any of the other Questors, though perhaps her weapons were of somewhat better make. Outrider Hecuba, on the other hand, was a completely different beast than those amongst her group of scouts - she wore distinct lamellar armor distinct from that most of Matathran's forces bore, and was equipped with both a broadsword and a kite shield, setting her far apart from those of her fellows. She appeared far older than Levia in appearance, with a worn and wrinkled face best described as petpetually unamused, and she had singularly striking turquoise eyes.

Radoslaw nodded his head greatfully, his elaborate headdress sweeping in turn. "Questor Levia and Outrider Hecuba, I am pleased to meet the kind of such a well storied band. The fates have sought to bring us together for the means of this great war. I look forward to the tales we may share, for there is much I desire to learn of your travels..." Radoslaw appeared lost in thought for a fleeting second, as if he spoke another man's words from long ago. Trygve looked at him worriedly before laying a firm hand on the hulking Morkt's shoulder.

Radoslaw's gaze quickly refound the eyes of the women before him. "Pardon me, it has been a long trip. To my right is Trygve. He is the man who will lead my people in our shared plight. Though he is young, " Radoslaw offered, seeing the weathered faces of the Matathran elite, "he has seen much battle. A maverick of his craft. I hope you will extend the same trust and honor you would give me. In time, I am sure that investment will be delivered on in full." Radoslaw gave a soft nod to his contryman, the worry in his face replaced with quiet gratitude.

"With due deference, we share no plight. Ours is a war of conquest; the only plight witnessed by the both of us will be that of our enemy's." Hecuba's voice was matter-of-fact. She gestured at Trygve's collar. "You say he's your commander. Why does he wear a collar like the rest? Is he chattel, or is it ceremonial?"

"All men wear collars. Some are on their banners, some are in their purse, and some are in their hearts. He is as free a man as any, simply bound to doing what is right. To keeping his oaths." Radoslaw offered in return.

"...If that is true, I apologize for any insult I have given you, commander Trygve." Hecuba said with a sigh as she finally looked to Trygve - and as she did, the warrior felt the almost magical fashion in which the eyes of nearly every other assembled Matathran oriented onto him, and he realized that they had all been studiously ignoring his very presence up until that moment.

"Any Matathran knows well the value of an oath." Levia supplied in support. "Forgive us our errors of address to you, there are some uncertainties of propriety we are due to observe. I am certain our platoon would be pleased to answer any of your questions."

Trygve's smile ignited at his turn of address. He strode up to Levia, arms crossed but not otherwise unfriendly. "There is nothing to forgive. We come from two very different words, where water meets vinegar." He said with a smile before addressing the whole of the gathering. "But we will have to learn how to mix, where to mix, and what to mix between our worlds if we are to survive. I have seen you fight," he offered the crowd of Questors, arms crossed and nodding at his words, "some of you I may have fought myself. But the times call for us to change, and make a force the sum of its parts. I am proud to see myself among your rank, and," Trygve turned to Tafari soley, "I have it on good opinion that you will not disappoint."

"Some of my scouts ventured into the marshes earlier. The terrain appears fairly accomodating." Hecuba remarked in a faint tone, as though she were describing a pleasant and scenic detour. "As I imagine you have gathered, I am the lieutenant colonel Hecuba of the Second Nimbus cohort of Calid Scouts and Outriders. I have for you my fourteen very best footmen, they are all veterans of the thirty-years war and I have personally assured they are all younger than forty summers. I am the only exception. They can find their way through uneven waterlogged terrain while blind, can hear a splinter tumble from a hundred paces, and the only reason you can see them as of this moment is because I instructed them to stand in plain sight. They have already procured for us a number of maps for certain sections of marshes that may be of use to you."

Trygve nodded in appreciation. "You already well prove your worth. We certainly cannot return the way we came, and I am sure that the agents of Yaval will be finding themselves ever more attentive. Your knowledge and skill will not go in vain." Trygve responded, holding out his arm to meet hers. Glancing momentarily towards Tafari, Hecuba extended hers in return, and the two clasped forearms firmly - though Hecuba quickly withdrew her arm, as though anxious of prolonged contact, though her face remained calm.

"I am Colonel Levia, and although I command no body of soldiers, I am most senior amongst the assembled Questors." Levia spoke after a brief moment of silence between the three. "Though few of them were Questors during the thirty-years war, all of them served in the underworld during it in one capacity or another. I only selected those with a familiarity with coastal and mired terrain. Two claim to know of you from personal encounters; Sarapamon claims he was on a vessel at sea and observed you boarding another." She gestured faintly to a bearded Questor standing near the edge of the semicircle. "Telindae claims to have traded blows with you briefly, before fleeing from your raiding party." She gestured again to a second Questor, a woman with blonde messy hair, near the cemicircles' arch. She visibly scowled at Trygve as he lay eye on her. Her glare was met more mildly with Trygve's a soft nod. "Most of them are personally familiar with the treefolk and creatures of the Emerald Empire to some extent." Levia finished.

"It is luck that I did not killed any of you. And still greater luck that none of you have yet killed me." Trygve said with a smile as he continued to pace about the Matathan ranks. He gestured at his own men and women as he strode back to their loosly asssmebled group. "These are my kin." He grabbed the well defined trap of a heavily tattooed woman before stepping on, her firery red hair babbling over his hand. "We have no titles, but we have stories. Each of them has been with me on beaches all over this great world. They have sailed with me, bled with me, and hungered with me." Trygve firmly grabbed the back of one of his men's necks endeeringly. As he strode among their rank he met their eyes but spoke in concert to the assmbly at large. "I would take any one of them and their ax to the depths of the ocean knowing I would be in good hands. I hope to one day die in their rank. But for now I live to serve at their side, and to bring them to that fate with purpose. They are my brothers and my sisters. And we will taste victory together one more time or else supp together at the ocean's depth."

Trygve looked back on the assembled expedition. "And so, my freinds. Let us drink and tell the tales of our two great peoples. In the morning creature comforts will elude some among us for months, and others for lifetimes. But we will fight that fate united. From water, to water"

"From blood, to blood." The Morkt crew chanted in turn.

Empire of Lynn-Naraksh || Empire of Matathran

The North-South Dual Imperial Border

There had been a brief flurry of activity around the watchtower at Matathran's border when they had seen the Envoy's group coming from some distance away.

The tower itself was, as such structures went, rudimentary but effective. It bore a stone foundation that supported a taller extension made largely of wood. Matathran built with the expectation that the Watchtower might need to be razed or rebuilt at any given moment, and so they built such structures tall - if cheaply, quickly, and without much in the way of ostentation. This particular tower was circular, perhaps eight floors tall in height, but mostly hollow and without much in the way of internal complexity. All of its facilities were in the stone structure at the lowest level, wherein there was a barracks adjacent to a modest stable extending to the exterior.

The soldiers garrisoned within were stationed only with the expectation that they would be fighting skirmishing forces and ambuscades, and so the forces assembled therein were comprised merely of a large platoon of Cosmogone infantry, with a squad of Calid Scouts, along with Febris and Pyrulen Auxiliaries. By the time the Envoy had crossed the last frigid ridge and the terrain started to almost magically warp and give way to rolling and fertile savanna, most of these individuals had been assembled outside by the watchtower's base in small columns - though facing away from the approaching envoy. A single figure stood at their head, addressing them - possibly the site Invigilator.

What was emerging from the snow-smattered hills, ponderously dragging itself down the slope that steadily crept down into plainsland, did indeed appear to give good reason for an even greater commotion than what had passed through the garrison. At first, nothing could be seen but two vast shapes lumbering towards the border. Even from that distance, it was clear they were enormous, about fivefold the size of a large bull in length and reaching up about halfway across the tower's height. Between them there crawled something conspicuously less imposing, yet nonetheless greater than any beast most of the assembled soldiers had ever seen.

As the towering forms approached, more became visible besides the creatures' tremendous bulk. What had seemed for a moment to be plates of armour attached along their sides was revealed to be no more than their own rigid, chitinous hide. Its sharp-edged plates ran along their entire bodies, interrupted in places by glaringly inexplicable segmented limbs. The only exceptions were their legs, whose fleshy appearance was especially nauseating below the smooth shells, and their heads, encased in molds of bone that extended into horns and mandibles without a single joint. What was perhaps the strangest about the monstosities was their colour: despite their size, their carapaces were dark as only those of a juvenile could be. On the back of each, barely visible behind their crests, crouched a single vaguely human-like, abeit unnaturally hunched, figure.

No less outlandish was the thing in the middle. It was no beast at all, but a contraption of wood and metal resting on wheels nearly as high as a grown man, pulled by the foremost monster in a yoke that seemed to be made out of a whole young tree. Its ample rough base oddly resembled an abnormally large waggon. The similarity was compounded by the canvas that covered it, though it could have passed for a field tent given its shape and extension. On its side, this uncommon bonnet bore the sign of the Three Eyes, and the black standard of Lynn-Naraksh hung from the pole rising in its center.

The arrayed columns of Matathran soldiers did not move as the Envoy approached. Instead, the Invigilator, accompanied by one bannerman holding aloft the standard of Imperial Matathran, strode forward some distance until they were perhaps five meters distant, at which point the Invigilator raised a stern hand and shouted.

"In the name of the Empress Andromache, I compel you to halt!"

The hunched figures astride the creatures, now clearly recognisable as Kuraxxi bog-folk, became agitated for a moment, tugging at ropes bound to the beasts' horns and hissing something in hurried, harsh tones. Slowly, after a few more steps, the giants came to a stop. The one in front gave the Invigilator a blank look with its four eyes, then began to root through the soil with its teeth, raising clouds of dirt, before being quieted by another pull of the rope.

A section of the vehicle's rim, evidently fixed on hinges, swung down in a semicircle, hitting the ground with its edge. The canvas over this improvised footbridge parted, and the two most human-like shapes the convoy had revealed thus far appeared from behind it. One was a distinctly masked and robed priest of the Divines, dressed, it seemed, unusually richly for Narakshi clergy. The second, larger than its companion, was clad in steel plate, the telltale red gleam of Blood Lord eyes shining from the slits of its angular helm.

"Hail to the valorous forces of the honoured Empress, feared be her name!" Greeted the cleric, perhaps with undue joviality in his voice, as the pair cumberously made its way down the plank and towards the Invigilator. "We are sent by -" he hesitated, as though pondering how to continue "- His Imperial Sanctity of Lynn-Naraksh, with word and mandate for your august monarch in person."

The Invigilator looked the cleric up and down, an expression of distaste upon his face. "...I see." He said curtly. "I shall have word sent to Chalice at once, of course, to make the necessary accomodations for your embassy."

"I fear you misunderstand." The priest's words did not grow in the slightest less genial. "Word and mandate to be delivered in person - expediently."

"Your word and mandate may be delivered in person as expediently as is possible from your embassy in Chalice, whenever the Empress deigns to grant you audience." The Invigilator replied sternly. "Do you think you can so readily peddle for favor with an Imperial Officer? You would do well to refrain from such depraved endeavors further on. Few are as lenient as I in their duties."

The priest raised a gloved hand in a conciliatory gesture. "We wouldn't think of presuming on the Empress' will. But-"

Before he could continue, the armoured figure stepped forward, gesturing for him to be silent. In a grating tone distorted by its visor, yet tinged with impatience just strongly enough for it to be audible, it rumbled out at the Invigilator, making a point of inclining its head to look at him:

"Measure your words when speaking with guests. I have orders from His Sanctity to speak to your Empress. Send your word to no other."

The Invigilator looked up at the Blood Lord with more deference, however slight, a look of consideration passing across his face. "...It is not within my authority to pass word directly to the Empress." He said finally. "Rest assured, she will hear of it in short order and will be appropriately advised as to the importance of your word and mandate. Your embassy will be granted audience with as much expediency as can be expected at the Imperial Seat."

The lights within the helm grew thinner in height as the Lord narrowed its eyes, now with evident irritation.

"What is it you don't grasp? I come with words the Empress must hear soon. Wherever she might be. If you are not empowered to inform her, we will do it ourselves. All we need is a road to her."

The Invigilator's eyes widened as he processed what the Blood Lord had just said, stunned by the implication. "You...What..." He recovered. "If that is the case, what is the purpose of this...procession of yours? If you intended to relay a priority message, would not one or two officiated couriers have been preferable? This is supremely suspect. For all I know this is but the prelude to another assassination attempt. You claim you have a message to relay to her personally? Very well. Your intent is accepted. Now announce the purpose of your convoy." He crossed his arms and looked between the Blood Lord and the Cleric expectantly.

"A courier?!" The Lord virtually growled the question. "Should we think so low of your Empress to not even send her a delegation worthy of an overlord of victorious armies?! I pity Andromakha if her most wretched servants regard her so!" A breath of sweltering heat struck the Invigilator as the armoured warrior's right hand briefly glowed with fiery light.

Just then, the masked cleric edged forward, interposing himself between the Invigilator and his fuming comrade.

"I am really afraid you do the Empress injustice. His Sactity desires for his words to reach her ear, and he found that nobody short of one of his own Blood Lords and an Episcope of the Divines-" he coughed, gesturing at himself, "- would have been worthy of being graced with her presence. If you think otherwise, I am lost for words. But, since you ask us with her authority, we'll gladly answer. Our message is one of matters of state, and hopes of alliance."

A heavy pause hung in the air.

"Sir, perhaps..." The bannerman spoke from behind the Invigilator.

"Do not speak out of turn!" The Invigilator said sharply, if somewhat reflexively, though the relieved look on his face said he appreciated the excuse for another brief moment to think. He turned back to the cleric.

"This is...not within my purview to handle." He said finally. "I will have you assigned documentation as a formal emergency delegation. I will direct you to the township of Ffanos, you will visit the Imperial Demesne there, and they will direct you to the Empress personally. If they decide that is the suitable course of action. Is that acceptable to you?"

"Entirely. I-"

"After your entourage has been inspected here, of course." The Invigilator interrupted the split instant the Cleric's affirmation passed his lips. He raised a hand to signal the assemble infantry behind him.

"...Ah, of course." If the Episcope was miffed at having been cut off so suddenly, his voice did not betray it. "Pray, let me guide you. I wouldn't wish for our adjuncts to get a wrong impression."

"If I were to inspect your entourage alone, this would take hours. You said you wanted expedience. You shall have it." The Invigilator replied simply. He turned to face the Lieutenant for the approaching platoon of infantry. "Instruct your men to use their utmost discretion and care during the inspection and to be most gentle with their personal effects. They are an emergency formal delegation sent by his Sanctity, the Emperor of Lynn-Naraksh personally. Accord them the respect and dignity they deserve."

"By your order, Invigilator." The Lieutenant said smartly, before heading back to address the platoon. The Invigilator looked to the Cleric again. "Do you have any items of note you would like to declare now, prior to their discovery and handling? If they are most delicate, for example."

If the cleric's rising hand was any indication, he had intended to reply to the Invigilator's prior remark. Seeing himself denied this opportunity, he had promptly reached with it into the folds of his robes, as though that had been what he had been about to do all throughout. The last question seemed to give purpose to his casual fumbling, and he promptly produced a scroll of parchment from some internal pocket.

"Yes, yes," he intoned as he drew it open and handed it to the Invigilator, "there are some. I couldn't list them all - expediency, you understand, your men already have much to do - but you will find it simpler to verify how they are marked here. Fragile items are -" he placed his finger on a point of the scroll, which was inscribed with orderly columns of writing "- down here. I wouldn't advise the others are handled roughly, of course, but I believe that is clear."

The Invigilator took the parchment and glanced over it in a perfunctory manner. "Would there happen to be any proscribed items listed here?" He asked flatly, not even looking to the Cleric as he read down the list.

"Not by the laws of Lynn-Naraksh." The Episcope withdrew his finger. "What goods does the Administration designate as such?"

"The usual. Certain flammables, toxins, certain exotic animals..." The Invigilator's eyes trailed over the terrorbeasts meaningfully for a moment. "...fruit and vegetables for the most part, enchanted items of note, artifacts, relics...I will not bore you with the complete list." He glanced up meaningfully as the infantry behind him approached. "Well?"

The finger went once again to the parchment's surface. "All mystical wares are in this section here." The priest's reluctance to explain further was visibly prompted by the section in question spanning about half of the list. "Toxic ones are here, here and here, with 'poison'. Flammable ones..." He turned briefly to the Blood Lord and exchanged some words in Narakshi with it. "Nothing but these."

"Yes, well, since expediency is so important to you...Lieutenant, presume all otherwise proscribed items you discover have been waived. Make sure you compile all of them on a list for triplication of course. Have this entire list we have been presented with sent down to the Ffanos Demesne, they can check its entirety before the delegation arrives and determine what appropriate recourse shall be." He handed the list off to the Lieutenant, who folded it and tucked it away in his belt. The Invigilator looked to the Cleric. "You would be well advised not to lose anything accounted for on that list. Nor to appear at the Demesne with any not listed. Am I clear?"

"Rest assured I am not one to scatter what His Sanctity entrusts to my care on the road." Although the words were manifestly not addressed to it, it was the Lord that answered. Its eyes had returned to their usual breadth, and its voice was as measured as when it first had spoken. "Or to offer someone a gift of what I have taken from her."

Before it could voice any more of its indignation with the Invigilator, the Episcope spoke up. "No deviation from this will be allowed. We can account for that. All we will add to it is some weight in our stomachs." He let out what might have been a light chuckle, as if congratulating himself for his wit. "But the Demesne oughtn't find issue with that."

"The Demesne will determine what it will and will not find issue with." The Invigilator said sternly as the Matathran soldiers began to inspect the two massive beasts of burden and their cargo. "In any case, be advised that there are forces on maneuver in the Sea of Slate. In case anything else about what oughtn't occurs to you. I imagine your delegation can find the way to Ffanos on its own. Good day to you."

With that, the Invigilator and his bannerman both turned and headed back to the watchtower in the distance.

Empire of Matathran

The Road to the Township of Telerene, from Holat

The desert fields in the region dominated by the Metropolis of Cruiox were desolate, and so it surprised even a Dryad like Xuna how tenaciously varying forms of life clung to existence there. The desert road itself, identical in every way to every road she and Yarvost had walked since the beginning of their journey, was the only constant here - beyond its confines, dunes of sand rolled haphazardly out in every direction, the mid-morning sun beating down harshly on the terrain. The occasional shrub sprouting from the dunes or the elusive motion of some small and furtive desert creature told of a diverse ecosystem, hidden from plain sight. The air itself seemed to steam up in the background, Xuna's eyes showing her wavering pools of light in the distance. On occasion, these wavering mirages gave way to actual structures - partitioned acres in the desert fenced off from the rest, with desert huts arranged around seemingly barren fields that grew nothing - though the sand itself looked to have been upheaved and disturbed recently. The dwellings themselves were always abandoned, as though everyone therein had left in a great hurry only recent, with all the stocks and lardors emptied.

One of the fields and the set of dwellings Xuna and Yarvost came across had not been abandoned so - it had been burnt to nothing. Ashes drifted in the breeze from the still lightly-smoldering embers of the plantation houses, though whether it had been the work of slaves or its owners remained unknown.

Signs of the army the duo pursued were scarcer - the well-kept roads hid all signs of what number of troops they were to be facing, and while they had found signs of a few makeshift latrines, they had been filled-in upon the force's departure.

Xuna and Yarvost where far removed now from both their homeland and their original intended destination. They had caught wind of a rebellion shortly after they had entered the slave capital of Cra’dal and had decided it would be the perfect spark to ignite the flame of revolution. They had raced to Holat, only to find the city mostly at peace, with no major mobilization effort sent to quash the uprising. This was something of a blessing, for they could far more easily face Matathran’s usual cleanup revolt squad than an entire army. Now they were on the trail of said cohort, hoping they could catch up with it before it quashed the uprising. The pair sprinted through the desert, a blur at one with the mirages around them thanks to their glamor casting masks. Though the heat was sweltering and oppressive the sunlight invigorated Yarvost, absorbed by the leaves that grew from the twisted knot of branches that grew behind the Ent’s back. While Xuna did not have her kin’s photosynthesis, the small dryad's mana was a tightly coiled spring inside her, trained by more than a century of use. The force of her steps far outweighed what her limbs might be expected to produce were she flesh and blood, making her stride more akin to a two legged galop than a jog.

Eventually the road led up a rocky outcropping amidst the dunes, and the dup got their first look at the township of Telerene - or what remained of it.

It was strange. The gates and walls alike looked untouched and pristine, but...

Smoke. Smoke bellowed up from the township and hung in the air like an angry thunderhead. They could clearly see a few spires and steeples, crooked and blackened by flame. The entirety of the township within the walls had been put to the torch. It was confusing, to say the least. Everything Xuna had heard of similar rebellions by the caste slaves of Matathran indicated that such had never transpired before.

Perhaps more confusing and immediately worrisome though, was that the Matathran suppression force sent to put down the uprising was nowhere in sight. They should have been just ahead of Xuna and Yarvost - at the main gates if the slaves had not taken to the field, but they were nowhere to be found.

Behind her mask Xuna was both confused and appalled by the devastation, but quickly overcame it. Idleness would only make things worse. As the two approached the gatehouse Xuna retrieve a grappling hook from the side of small backpack she wore while she simoltaniosly carried out a one sided conversation with Yarvost.

“Same plan as always. I’ll go over the top, scout it out and let you in if there's anything to be salvaged from all this... Yes we could just use the sword, but I want to keep it in case we need to do a quick exit. You know this… true, the place has never been on fire before but… I will be careful.... See you soon.”

The plan made, she swung the hook round in a circle to build momentum and then hurled it atop the town’s walls, two of the three-pronged hooks spikes catching on the battlements above. After a few moments of listinging for shouts of alarm to make sure nobody had been alerted she scrambled up the rope to the top and then mounted the wall.

More silence. No alarms rang. No shouts or cries of warning. The battlements were deserted. Strangely, despite the absence of any other signs of fire, there were patches of ash scattered about the top of the wall in spots, as though somebody had taken a great urn of the stuff and dumped it on the spot.

Below in the town, the scenery was...curious, to say the least. There were still people - most of them slaves, from the looks of their garb. Many of them still wore collars and shackles, or were scarcely dressed. Many of them were hanging onto various weapons and implements listlessly, as though unsure what to do with them but hesitant to discard them. Many were digging through the wreckages of buildings, others were huddled in groups around small fires in the middle of streets, while others still were simply slumped or lying prone against ruined stone. Everywhere, there was devestation. The entirety of the township seemed to have been burnt - fires appeared to still be burning, in several places. The sides of the inner walls were all scorched black in a ring of death. Precious few dwellings and buildings seemed to have been spared, and from what Xuna could see, even their exterior seemed damaged and burnt in several places. It was like a great storm of flame had swept through the town, and nobody had done anything to try and stop it. That there were even people left in the ruins was astounding in and of itself - but she could see that far more had perished in the flames than had been spared. The streets themselves were lined with the flinching, charred bodies of the burnt, caught and petrified in their final moments of burning anguish in writhing, flailing contortions of clawed limbs. Many of their forms, she could see, had been bound - and many of them were just prone and still, missing their heads.

It was clear what had happened here - the townsfolk had been taken and butchered, or else deliberately exposed to the ravaging flames.

Which in no way explained where the cohort sent to deal with the slaves had gone. The slaves were still here and more notably they were still armed, the carnage on the city self inflicted rather than retaliatory. Which in her option wasn’t the smartest move seeing as they now didn’t have roofs over their heads, something she was aware humans generally needed, but they could still serve her purpose well if she could dissuade them from their more destructive practices. Having not been spotted she touched a hand to her mask and made it change her form, instructing Yarvost to do the same via their Dreaming connection, before finding her way down to the ground level now disguised as a slave boy. There the disguised xuna made her way to the gateway nonchalauntly, opening up the Wicket gate, a smaller sub door built into one of the major gate doors, before any of the ex-slaves could stop her. This revealed revealing the hulking form of a pitfighter, clad in ill fitting and iregular scraps of armor, jut beyond, who squeezed his way inside, after which Xuna resecured the door behind him.

As they advanced into the town, looking for somebody with an air of authority to speak with - a presence came upon the both of them. A voice, similar in nature to the voice of the Dreaming, spoke to them

'You are weary from your journey here, but know your burdens shall soon be lifted. Your future is one of hope and brilliance. Your children, and your children's children, will recall your names and forms in awe and with reverance, in the peaceful and righteous society we shall erect. All shackles shall be sundered, the yoke of oppression by the tyrannical, blood-thirsty harlot thrown off and sundered. And you will be the instruments of this just cause.'

The last words were accompanied by a surge of overwhelming compulsion - an intonation of exigence and evocation, which to defy summoned a dread neither of the Treekin had ever even fathomed before. The voice itself has a serene, tranquil quality to it - but with an underlaying streak of iron-clad certainty of will. This was a voice of command - the voice of a King.

This. This they had not expected. In all their years nothing but the Dreaming Forest had touched their minds and so in that first moment they simply could not conceive that it was anything else.

It is a surprise to find kin so far from home. I am Yarvost the Bold, who might you be?

While Yarvost immediately, instinctively, responded Xuna had a few moments to recognise everything that had been wrong in the the voice. That it had just been a voice for one, the Dreaming was not simply thought but feeling, as the flood of confusion, fascination and a little bit of disappointment that followed along with Yarvost’s words aptly demonstrated, and the lack of this bearing of the soul was concerning. The second was the “Your children, and your children's children” bit, for the Ents and Dryads could not reproduce as animals, and their progenitors, could.

Also what are you?

Xuna added a few moments later.

'We are the spirit of King Auleaus Enlil Medit. The cries of those anguishing in bondage under the thrall of the murderous upstart Andromache rekindled the fires of our noble purpose - the care and betterment of my kindred and people. We cannot, shall not rest until the slattern of Chaos has been duly upbraided and smote, and the peoples of this mine land are free again. You will be the instruments of this sacred and holy cause.' The voice's intonation started smooth and soft as the gentle glow of the afternoon sun throughout a garden in the cool of an airy day - before suddenly rising to that of a glaring, intolerable and all-consuming furor.

The pair more or less skipped over all of the eloquence and zeal, focusing entirely on what the voice claimed it was.

The spirit?” the two echod simultaneously. Yarvost again responded first, feeling insulted.

That is ridiculous. Nothing returns from the cessation of thought. Once the pattern is broken it cannot be restarted. Know that our causes are the same, the end to Andromache’s rule and the end to the enslavement of the people of Matathran. You need not attempt to inflate the nobility of your cause by putting on the airs of a martyr.

I’m Xuna the Brave by the way. If you are who you say you are, then we’ve met before.

And indeed they had, briefly, before the good king’s death. She had been part of a delegation visiting to his court long ago, a diplomatic expedition that managed to get the King to officially recognise the Emerald Empire as a nation unto itself that could be dealt with as an equal, rather than an existential threat to be combated with all the might of the continent. It was during that time her that she had first felt the urge to explore this realm of ancient wonders, and she and Yarvost had returned after the last war with Shenra to do just that, until the nation was thrown into chaos and war that consumed the good king.

A lengthy pause followed Xuna's statement, the spirit taking a moment to answer them.

'We do remember you, yes. You presented our court with a potted sprout of Yaval which did parlay with us. Years later, you pillaged a barrow in the Eastern barrens and relinquished unto me a burial vase you found therein.' There was another, shorter pause in the spirit's voice. 'You are treefolk. From the Emerald Empire.' Its statement was a curiously perfunctory form of speech for it. A strange recitation of the obvious that, in life, had not been a habit the Good King had indulged in often.

The manner in which the two interacted with their link with the king was filled with a storm of awe, suspicions and confusion that swirled and spiraled between the Ent and Dryad as they tried to work out what to do with the fact that it might just be the case that they had found someone who had defied death itself. Yarvost came out of the turmoil with hundreds of questions. Xuna with a renewed focus.

How...” Yarvost started before Xuna interjected to stem the flow “We can discuss this once the threat is passed. We were trailing a bunch of Mathathran forces, sent from the city of Holat to destroy this revolution, but we got here without running into them. They could be upon the town at any second now, so we need to find them.'

'Perhaps. Or you could be agents of Matathran. The freed peoples we have liberated have spoken to me of adventurers much like yourselves, known as the Questor Order Secular. We would endeavor to trust you, but it must yet be known that your ends are unto mine. The treefolk are rampant and disorderly in their dreaming woods; I have never approved of the manner in which you permit rampant growth to freely hinder the peaceful peoples of the lands you conquered, and I know that you did depart from Yaval's holds to journey through mine lands. For all it is known, you may have thrown your lot in with the harlot of Chaos. If your claims would be true, renounce your fealty to both Yaval and Andromache. Pledge yourselves utterly to the cause of our revolution and our purpose, and make yourselves wholly unto the tools with which this land will once again know propsperity by the hands of free peoples.' The intonation of the voice's words did not broker negotiation - it was brim with a sort of serene anger. Not only for Andromache and the slavery her empire had spread, but also in part for the treefolk themselves - and while such anger was confusing in but a moment, it then occured to the duo the reason for such anger.

The Emerald Empire had permitted Andromache to slay Medit and overthrow his Kingdom. They had permitted Andromache to institute slavery in the former Kingdom of Cra'dal. It was perhaps to be expected that the spirit of Medit would not be pleased with such failure to act - in life, his moral outlook had been rather demanding. He believed that evil was not just a volitional act, but also something that had to be permitted by those lacking in moral character.

The two were not politicians or grand strategists, they did not remember the exact rationale of their kin for not getting involved with the decades of war that had gripped the region now known as Matathran. Things like not interfering in the realm of the Serene church was a big one they did remember, but when it came down to it, what Xuna thought the real reasoning was that everyone kept underestimating Andromache. The Kings should have bested her, the spiders should have consumed her, that her new empire would collapse atop her, that the ravages of time would claim her as they did all mortals, that they could personally strike her down. Yet she had weathered it all.

Words... Words are not enough. Let us show you why our causes are aligned, why we would never ally with the destroyer

The duo presented a vision, a memory, to the King. It was not forced upon him, but simply presented before him. Seen through two sets of eyes was the skyline ablaze, an inferno of smoke and desolation that crept ever northwards as the border forest burned. As a memory it was more than just sight and sound. The smell of fire, the distant heat, the flecks of embers brushing against the body and permeating it all the memory of horror, anger and dismay. To touch the memory was to touch their souls, to feel a degree empathy impossible for those without the dreaming. The spirit of the king was the first person to ever, truly understand why the Dreaming forest where so singularly loyal to their kind, because how could treachery exist when such a harmonious unity of mind was possible. Even these two, who avoided any connection but the one they had between each other because of their love of freedom, could not deny this loyalty. In barring their minds to him they had shown him their hatred of Andromache, yet also that their first loyalty was to the Dreaming Forest.

He now knew that would not betray him to Andromache, that they believed in his cause, that they genuinely wanted to help him, that they could be his allies, but that he could never comand their loyalty as the Forest did while his mind was closed.

'Your appeals to our furor are wasted. Yaval may yet need to be shown the error of their ways, in time, if they cannot be made to adhere to the tenets of true Order. These visions of flame and ruin mean naught to us; if the choice be ruin by Yaval's disharmony or by Andromache's torch, we refuse to choose between two evils. There shall only be one future - one of harmony, order, and peace. We shall create this future with the wit of our will. You may either be a part of that vision - or you may perish in the forgotten shadows of the evils that shall soon be banished forevermore from this world. You are either aligned with my cause - or you are aligned against it.'

The spirit's voice was stern and deep, with a rumbling hum underlying its timbre. The sound of a distant storm on the horizon, gathering power.

They wanted to argue with his choice of words, with his tone, his religious zeal, with his apparent megalomania, but after a few moments of debate they decided to see if they could simply placate the spirits ego for now. Time was of the essence, the spirit had likely not dealt with the Matathran threat in some unseen manner, and as such probably needed them if there was any hope of survival. They would not throw away the lives of the king's people over their own misgivings.

We are with you

Words where given, but only words.

'You seem...ambivalent.' Medit remarked, his voice cold and hard, implaceable and imposing as a glacier. 'I shall give you one chance to demonstrate your allegiance to our cause. Come to the town square.'

There was some, limited, trepidation, but the two nonetheless headed up towards the center of town, Xuna occasionally glancing back to the walls, expecting them to come crashing down at any second while they wasted yet more time on the spirits mistrust. The fact that the dreaming should make all this irrelevant frustrated her to no end.

As Xuna and Yarvost walked down the town streets, still glamored to appear as slaves, an ill-kempt and haggard elf in the streets awoke from his slumber, resting against the cobblestones. He slowly staggered to his feet, and called out.

"Fellows at arms! Heed the word of the spirit of Good King Medit! Two Champions have come before us! They are to demonstrate and pledge their fealty to our cause, for the good of the peoples, and the liberation of all! Come! We shall bear witness to their Commitment!"

Quickly, the meandering groups of slaves - miners, farmers, pit-fighters, and more began to gather in a wake behind Xuna and Yarvost as they approached the town square. They were yelling and cheering the two on - or were those mocking jeers they could hear amongst the tumultous waves of sound?

The scenery in the streets as the procession passed became bleaker and more horrid as the two advanced. Lines of burnt, smoldering corpses littered the street, all of them lined up in rows with bound hands, some of the prostrating and prone, many with missing heads - and many of the scorched carcasses had been broken open, revealing hollow interiors. The charred remnants of the townsfolk were all hollow shells. The debris of what had once been dwellings and places of business were little more than pyres of timber and ash, mounds of desolation transforming the city into a massive mausoleum. In places, ashes were still rising into the air, the wind carrying them across the path of the duo's procession. The treefolk could not help but be reminded of the very same imagery of the Sea of Ashes they had shown the spirit of King Medit not moments before.

“What is with these people and their obsession with fire...”

Xuna muttered, trying to make light of the situation. It didn't work. That ancient and singular fear of the Dreaming Forest gnawed at them and mingled with the faint horror of witnessing an execution of such a scale. The comparison with the wall of ash was not lost on them, and they could only hope they would be able to assert some kind of influence once the king recognised their capabilities to prevent such a waste of life occurring in future.

They arrived at the town square - a large, open stone plaza, ringed by multiple raised wooden platforms covered with banners, rugs, and tapestries, with carriages, carts, and stalls surrounding their bases, indicating the square had once been the market of a thriving desert town. Now, signs of makeshift and repurposed carpentry were present, the structures modified into makeshift gallows. Dozens of empty nooses swung in the breeze, all of them coated in thick layers of some powdery, dark grime. Awaiting them in the center of the plaza was a group of Humans and Grogars, wearing plate armor of Lynnfairish and Tarkiman design, standing in two formations to either side of four intimidating pit-fighters armed with vicious cleavers. The armor and weapons the crusaders bore were all battered and terribly stained by the same dark, heavy grime and soot that had turned the swinging nooses black. The scent of soot and death hang in the air like a grudge. Between the rough men were two peasants, bound and on their knees, cloth sacks covering their heads. Immediately behind them, laying prone on a covered cloth table that had been dragged to the center of the plaza, was a prone and sleeping figure wearing the raiment of a Serene Deacon.

'Stand before them.' The spirit's voice intoned.

Other than the soot and the foreign knights this was more or less what had been expected. Death to the ghosts enemies, a pact sealed in blood. For the sake of the living the pair obayed, the hulking Yarvost and the petite Xuna each standing before a prisoner, awaiting the inevitable follow up instruction.

With a wide yawn and a stretch of their arms, the figure in the Deacon's raiment rose from their weary slumber on the cloth table. Rising, they looked blearily out to the procession gathered before him with a faint smile before then rising to his feet upon the table. He outstretched his hands and began to speak.

"Fellows and kindred of the glorious tide of freedom! Before us stand two aspiring Champions of our righteous cause! Two treefolk from the Emerald Empire, adventuring champions of yore who have wandered the vale of Matathran in the time of the Good King!" He pointed to the two glamored treefolk. "Abandon the pretense of your veils, noble champions, for you are truly amongst honored comrades! We would see your benign and awesome forms as they truly are!" The crowd assembled around Xuna and Yarvost had gone quiet, looking to them with confusion and suspicion at the priest's words.

Xuna, growing more impatient by the second, quickly tapped an extended finger against her mask, Yarvost following shortly after. The two treekin where revealed for what they truly were, or rather Yarvost was. Wearing only a series of bells and straps holding 13 swords in sheaths across his waist and chest and the lower half a robe left his upper boy exposed. branches extending from his back, unfurling their leaves to catch the sun now that they did not need to hide beneath the glamor. The exposed parts of his body where crude, making little attempt to mimic the human form, only its function, flat lengths of bark made up his limbs and his legs ended in a spread of roots rather than feet.

Xuna meanwhile was almost entirely covered in a hooded robe and wraps of cloth, where it not for her exposed wooden hands and parts of her neck that were glimpse behind a choker, she could have been mistaken for a human child. She carried a rucksack, a quiver of arrows and a strange tool that looked like a mix between a lyre and a bow. Other weapons were no doubt hidden within the folds of her robe. Thick ropes of white hair or vines spilled out from her hood, framing the mask she wore. The masks worn by both Treekin, the ones that had allowed the illusions in the first place, where old, worn and made of a petrified ashen wood. Two long slender horns extended out from them, their faces where plain apart from a singular angular glyph running down the center and red, glowing, eyes. Two on Xuna, four on Yarvost. Benign had not been a good choice of words by the priest.

"Behold! Xuna and Yarvost, the bold and the brave duo of the Emerald Empire! They have foresworn their oaths to the malign Primordial get Yaval!" The priest declared. The townsfolk immediately around the dup had stumbled back in surprise and alarm as the veil of their illusions was lifted. Many of those near the back had begun to shout again, flinging accusations of 'Inhuman! and 'Oathbreakers!' at the pair, but these few voices were quickly hushed as the Priest motioned for silence.

"Yes, this pair have sworn fealty anew to the Spirit of the Good King himself! And now they present themselves here before us to affirm their new oaths, and to swear themselves eternally to the cause of the Good King, of liberty itself, and of the Serene order!" He gestured to the two kneeling peasants. "Remove their hoods! Show their treacherous faces the light of justice!"

The crowd roared with approval as the pit-fighters surrounding the two victims ripped off their hoods, revealing their pale, terrified faces. A Human woman and a male Sun Elf, tears and snot dribbling down their faces uncontrollably.

"Xuna and Yarvost, the bold and the brave! Strike down these traitors to our righteous cause!" The Priest declared with exultant fervor.

"Please! Sp-spare us! I'm just a tailor! I've never even worked with slaves before! I can't fight, I've just been trying to get by!" The woman begged Xuna.

"Please...I have family in Holat! I was just here to visit my sister!" The man cried up to Yarvost. "I've done nothing wrong! This is perfidy!"

"Silence!" The priest cried out. Two of the pit-fighters held the struggling peasants' heads still, while the other two shoved the balled-up cloth sacks into their mouths, stiffling their pleas as the crowd jeered. He then looked to Xuna and Yarvost.

"These two traitors to the cause of the Good King refuse to fight for his justice and his decree! For that, and for all who would shy away from the conflict, only death awaits! The Serene One have mercy upon their spirits, their pitiful, wretched, sinful husks shall be purged from this world, ridden of our stead like the trash they are!" With each insult, the Priest gesticulated wildly at the pair of peasants, spittle and froth now flying from his mouth as he shouted, his face contorting with hideous wrath as his shrill voice pierced through the air.

"Off with their heads!" The priest demanded.

'These are but the first. This is what awaits all who would refuse to serve our cause.' The spirit remarked lightly to Xuna and Yarvost as the crowd roared again in approval behind them. The duo could feel the watchful, judgmental gaze of the armored knights and the pit-fighters as they waited.

Xuna watched all this with a combination of disgust for the morbid theatrics of it all, and a growing sense of resignation. She pitied the accused in a way, but their refusal, their insistence of an inability, to fight in order to save their own lives was not something she could comprehend. Once the preacher was done she informed him:

“The Dreaming Forests are not bound together by words, we had no oaths to break.”

As withdraw a forearm length knife from a hidden sheath inside her robes. As she did so Yarvost drew his Amber Blade. Old and well used it glowed golden in response to his touch. Silently, without ceremony, finesse or remorse the two stepped to either side of their sacrifice and, with red eyes staring at the preacher, stuck off the heads with a single handed blow of their respective implements. The crowd's roar of triumph caused the plaza's flagstones to rumble, and in the tumultous uproar, an eerie miracle unfolded: The peasants' bodies within their clothes abruptly dissolved to ashes, and in the turbulant current of the plaza, the ashes were blown directly into Xuna and Yarvost, coating them in the ashes of their victims.

"Champions! Your resolve is without doubt or flaw! We welcome and accept you into our ranks as brothers and sisters in arms of liberation!" The Priest cried. "Everyone! In light of this momentous occasion, I proclaim that we shall now indulge in revelry! Raid the stocks and larders, for tonight we feast-"

The priest's words were broken by the sound of an alarm horn bellowing in the distance. As one, the entire crowd fell into a hush, looking around and listening.

Once again, the warning horn bellowed in the distance - to the West.

Then, a moment later, a second warning horn bellowed in the East.

Then from the North-

And then the South.

"We are under attack!" The Priest cried. "To arms! Cast down the consorts of chaos my fellows!"

'I warned you. Less theatrics, more preparation for war next time?"

Xuna thought at the king while she put away her bloody dagger. Time to save these bloodthirsty idiots from their own lack of military experience.

“Scouting!” she yelled at the disorganised mob. In response Yarvost crouched down, cupping his hands together onto which Xuna stepped, before being hurled skywards, a direction she flew considerably higher than she should have. As she gracefully reached the height of the arch a good fifty meters in the air she nonchalantly pulled out her multi stringed bow and proceeded to survey the walls from her temporary vantage point. She did not hang there, but rather a series of enchanted belts around her waist slowed her fall by making her much lighter than she actually was.

Once she was high enough in the air to look out and see beyond the debris of the burnt and ruined town, she saw just how it was that she and Yarvost had missed the Matathran response to the slave revolt.

Their force had arrived at the town doubtlessly expecting to find the slave army assembled and waiting to fight them in the desert fields, but had instead come across the closed gates, the slaves all still within. They had then gone around the walls, visiting each of the town gates in turn, leaving the Southern gate - connected to the main road, where more slaves might be expected to come if they sought to join the revolution - for last.

They had then come into the town from all four directions at once, and from what Xuna could see with her keen eyes, they had barricaded and boarded the gates shut - from the inside. They intended to simply sweep through the entire town, slaughtering everyone without giving them the opprotunity to escape.

The forces themselves had only just now started to spread out from the town gates. Xuna saw warbreeds - lots of them, accompanied by around two foot and bowmen each. Quickly tallying up the numbers of all the Matathran soldiers and slaves she saw, Xuna saw that the band sent to put down the revolt had to be outnumbered by more than ten to one.

Which was cold comfort when she saw a warbreed slash through a crowd of more than a dozen slaves at once with its oversized bardiche, killing all of them instantly - proof arising in the form of their bodies immediately turning to ash and blowing away in the wind.

The warbreeds and their footmen were starting to spread out. If she and Yarvost were quick enough they could perhaps reach one of the clumps before they finished separating - or perhaps if they both split up they could try to go for two at once...

Before the warbreed who had decimated the slaves could strike again Xuna plucked an arrow from her quiver and set it to her bow, drawing it back. It felt incredibly natural to figure out the amount of force she needed to apply, the direction she needed to angle it to correct for wind and gravity. It was natural because, apart from the stolen string, everything of it was made from her, was still connected to her. The bow itself made of wood from the sprout he had grown out of, the string was her hair, the arrow shaft her bark, the head and feathers her sap finely crystalised and imbued with power. She did not need to still her breath as animals did to ensure aim, she did not need to squint to see, for the mask made everything clear. She let loose the arrow, sending it hurtling towards her target, born at incredible speed by tension and mana, towards her target’s raised wrist. The entire process had taken less than a second.

Xuna's ears popped as the air itself shattered around her, sound losing its substance as a cyclone of force rippled out from around the arrow's head as it was released from the bow. The arrow itself seemingly vanished from the air as she released it, then magically reappeared precisely where she had desired and known it would land, as though it had moved through the air faster than her eyes could reliably follow. The arrow embedded itself in the Warbreed's upraised wrist, and with a ringing cry of resonance that reverberated from the site of impact, the metal along the Warbreed's halberd twisted and then sundered into rapidly curling and contorting shards. The Warbreed itself fell with a soundless cry, the air ripped from it as its body rapidly withered like a prune left in the sun, its skin turning to worn leather, its eyes going milky-white, and monstrous overgrowths causing its form to become malignant and twisted until the beast finally fell to the ground, dissolving to ash, its massive wooden tower-shield and its now ruined bardiche falling to the cobblestone with a clatter. The footmen accompanying it had been bowled over onto their backs by the resonance of the attack, their own blades shattering from its force and the twisting metal holding the pieces of their shields together causing the armaments to explode in a cloud of splinters and crunching timber, even as the smaller metal pieces of their armor twanged and chirped as it fell to pieces.

And then, Xuna violently slammed into the ground, the sheer force of releasing the arrow having overcome the staying power of her bells - it had tossed her back through the air like a flung doll, and then she had fallen back to the Earth as her dysfunctional bells struggled to resume exerting their arcane influence once more. She raised her head, dazed, out of the desert sand to stare directly at the exterior wall of the town.

Firing the bow with its newly added string had thrown her out of the town from the force of its release.

After she fired, Xuna had a few moments to contemplate how reckless of an idea that had been, before hitting the dirt outside the town. It was rather lucky that her angle meant that she bounced rather than simply being reduced to splinters by the landing, and subsequent two additional landings took their toll. She did her best to protect her face and bow, but the rest of her was cracked, scarred and shattered. Had she been flesh and blood the hit would have doubtlessly killed her. Had the Matathran forces not barred themselves inside they could have come to finish her off. Fortunately neither of these things were the case, and as such the broken Xuna had time to literally piece herself together, using most of the reserves of a healing crystal like the ones used by some Enchanters in the Emerald military. Suffice to say, this would take a while.

Meanwhile on the ground Yarvost drew his swords. All of them. With a massive claymore in one hand and the amber balde in another, the rest where picked up by prehensile vines extruding from the branches at his back. He had seen what Xuna had seen before she was launched from the town, saw what needed to be done. He first activated a sky blue sword upon who’s crossgaud was made in the shape of a pair of wings, before setting off towards the largest group of attackers, he stoide in long bounds rather than steps carrying him over the heads of the mob, covering the ground in a fraction of the time it would take them to traverse it. Traveling at a ridiculous speed for something his size thanks to the Soaring Stiker, he was upon one of the Matathran Warbreeds before they even knew what was happening, the massive claymore smashing with all the built up momentum into its upraised shield. The Seismic claymore massively increased the impact of the hit still further, expending it's mana reserve to produce an all-mighty shockwave that shattered the shield, hurling massive shockwave-propelled splinters into the warbreed and anyone in a hundred degree cone to either side of him. While the monstrous man was pelted with shrapnel Yarvost unceremoniously drove his amber blade into its heart. The shockwave also knocked the nearby soldiers off of their feet. Surveying the area quickly, Yarvost determined that the band at this area of the town had split up into at least ten other groups - possibly more - and were rapidly spreading out. Two more Warbreeds and their handlers had noticed him and were approaching rapidly to avenge their fallen comrades, but the remainder were already dispersing throughout that quarter of the town - and in the meantime, the other three groups at the other three gates of the city were presumably doing the same.

Yarvost quickly Identified the Warbreeds as the real problem rather than the humans. Warbreeds would destroy any freedmen bands they came across while their small escorts would be easily overwhelmed. Yarvost swapped out the expended claymore for a longsword, hoisted it like a javelin and hurled with great accuracy, striking it through the back of one of the spreading out warbreeds. Before the two mathathran brutes where upon him he gestured towards the sword, causing the Lost Lover to wrench itself from its victims back, leaping back into his hand so he could hurl it again.

The two groups attempting to assail him reached him almost simultaneously, one attacking from the front, the other from behind. He used his amber sword to hack the front one’s hand off before it could strike him, while the rear’s bardiche blow was intercepted by a vine that was practically dragged into its path by a knife that featured a single prong sticking out the side. At the same time as they were attacking him, Yarvost struck back, two vines armed withs words acted like flails, striking over the tops of their shields. An orange one, known as the Coral Wreath, bit into the unarmored shoulder of its target, causing a wound that practically vented the beast’s blood from its body, creating a fountain of blood that quickly drained the life from it. The other was struck by Thorn, a green tinted sword that featured rows of spikes along its blade, and quick collapsed as its body was quickly overwhelmed by deadly neurotoxins.

Their attack had done little to slow Yarvost, and he reared a hand again to send the Lost Lover to stab through the back of yet another warbreed - when two flaming arrows embedded themselves in his side. The soldiers who had been accompanying the Warbreed he had slain moments before had turned their attention to him. To make matters worse, the soldiers that had been accompanying the two that had been charging him also seemed intent on bringing him down, the Febris archers amongst them turning their bows on Yarvost. Looking around, he could also see there were no freedmen in the immediate vicinity.

The Ent was slightly miffed that these people were getting in the way. The archers would have to go first. One found themselves gripped by an Invisible Hand and dragged, screaming into one of the vine held blades upon which they where impaled. Another’s throat was slashed by the Jack Knife, a small knife whos blade extended to an obscene length for just long enough to do the deed. The remaining four were impaled by thrown swords, although they did not come back like the Lost Lover, which Yarvost once again threw at a distant warbreed. Two of the now swordless vines plucked the arrows from his body and a blade, Frostfang, that burned with a blue freezing energy sucked the life from the tiny fires they had started.

As the distant Warbreed fell, its body dissolving to ash on the wind as all the other corpses thus far had, the other forces began shouting as they noticed one of their squads become disrupted. Soon enough, Yarvost got exactly what he wanted - he had the attention of the full band of soldiers at this side of the city. As the various Warbreeds turned and started winding their way through the ruined buildings towards him, the various archers supporting him starting sending volleys of flaming arrows his way. From what he could see, the surviving freedmen whom the Warbreeds had just moments before been in the process of slaughtering, had taken the opprotunity to turn tail and run, which was both good and bad. On one hand, those were fewer lives he needed to personally save.

On the other, there were now eight Warbreeds and some additional thirty soldiers comprising both footmen and archers coming after him now, and he had just thrown four of his swords away. The Warbreeds all had their shields raised as well by this point, so using Lost Love to strike them down one by one was no longer an option.

In the time it took for the squads to organise their about turn Yarvost butchered the six infantrymen and picked off an additional warbreed before its slow mind could react to its new orders. As the archers notched their shots vines lashed out and dragged the shields of the two warbreeds to Yarvosts, allowing him to use them to block the majority of their shots by positioning them in a wedge shape and falling back towards the door. Those that got past were either stopped by the Sai Interceptor or doused by Frostfang as soon as they hit. As the Archers went through the process of first lighting and then notching their second barrage Yarvost was already upon the group closest to the wall to the east, having both discarded the shields and activated the Soaring Strikers once more, denying the melee fighters the opportunity to group up before he started going through them. As he engaged them, the nearby archers were taken down by the Lover, Jack and the Hand, and their dust was quickly joined by their infantry allies, Yarvost cutting them down with ruthless efficiency - and then, thankfully, the band of Warbreeds was upon him, and the remaining archers held their fire for fear of striking their hulking compatriots.

Although Yarvost was acclimatized to fighting while surrounded by numerous foes, now that these warbreeds were assembled they were giving him considerably more trouble than he had initially anticipated. Attempting to surround him, forcing Yarvost to back up against the town wall to prevent complete encirclement , and having seen how effortlessly he had taken their kin down at close range they kept their shields raised and struck at him from the furthest range possible with their bardiches using prods, pokes, overhanded swipes, and long horizontal slashes.

Yarvost made use of his stolen shield to protect himself from half of these probing attacks, while he parried most of the sweeping strikes. He did however suffer from several stab wounds and struggled against their superior reach. At least until the Seismic claymore finished charging to his satisfaction. Driving the blade into the center of the left most warbreed’s shield, the semi-powered blade’s impact broke the monsters arm, hand and the handle of the shield, allowing Yarvost to wrench it aside, stab the warbreed and break out of the encirclement. The one to his right was too slow to react and was similarly struck down, leaving the remaining four in a slightly curved line before him. The vines dragged a shield behind Yarvost, protecting him from being shot in the back as he cleaved through the remaining warbreeds one by one as they attempted to gang up on him once more. As he killed one, then another, the last two took leave of their senses and charged Yarvost, consumed by bloodlust and rage. They were quick work for him then, unable to adequately defend himself from Yarvost's multitude of limbs and his armory's worth of enchanted weaponry. Casting his gaze around to see what had become of the remaining archers and footmen, Yarvost saw the entire city quarter was abandoned. The soldiers had seen him taking down the Warbreeds with with ease, and had decided to regroup with the other three parties of soldiers tearing through the town. Casting his gaze further still, Yarvost could not see anything but the occasional glimpse of the fighting going on further out - most of the buildings in the town had been reduced to rubble and ashen debris, but the skeletons of many structures remained, and some of the ashen mounds were taller even than he was. He could not clearly see to what extents the remainder of the war party had dispersed throughout the town.

At that point he received word from Xuna that she was done fixing herself and had entered the town via grappling hook. Yarvost, after retrieving his swords, started making his way across the town, through the burned out buildings, towards her, wordlessly attempting to direct any survivors he found back to the safer zone and picking off any Matathran stragglers or parties he came across.

Alright. Back in it. Ghost King, get your people to go to where Yarvost is would ya? He’s cleared out the south entrance. Get outside and make the big guys come to you so you can surround them in a concave outside the gate.

'...I will do what I can.' The spirit replied faintly, as though its attention was directed elsewhere.

With that she lept from the wall, once more carried skywards by the bells she wore. At the top of her arc she once again had a view of the town, and it was a mess, even more than it was before. Slaves and Matathran forces were scattered all over, running around blindly in the ruins trying to kill each other. First she directed Yarvost towards the closest large group of warbreeds she could and then she prepared to open fire. This time however she did not use her newly procured string - it was evidently not suited for use in the air - and instead notched her arrow on one of the other strings made purely from her hair. Once more she carefully took aim, this time at a warbreed who had his back to her.

The arrow flew true, but this time there was only as small amount of recoil, causing her to drift backwards a little. More than the bow might have been expected to have, but far less than the insane shockwave the new string had produced. This string made the shots faster and the arrow sharper, allowing the shot to punch cleanly into the top of a Warbreed’s neck, severing his brain from his spinal cord. As the warbreed sloped to the grown the arrow that had hit him suddenly vanished, appearing back in her quiver a moment later. By that time Xuna had already drawn, aimed and fired three more arrows to take out other juicy apricots she could see below before drifting back down to the ground.

While the bells charged she sprinted deeper into the town while the bells recharged, rallying any freedmen she could find and directing them to either follow her or head to Yarvost’s safe exit. When her small band came across a Matathrna party the archer took the lead, nimbly dodging past their Warbreeds blow before executing him with an arrow or knife to his vital organs, after which the freedmen typically overwhelmed the giant’s handlers with ease. Yarvost meanwhile had gathered up a similar squad of survivors and the two groups swiftly became for the Matahtran extermination parties what they themselves were to the freedmen rabble, roving executioners. Only unlike the Matathran, the treekin could occasionally get a bird's eye view of the situation, with xuna popping up from time to time to find and snipe anyone nearby. It was a long and ashy affair. They spent hours clearing the town, and not every attack went as planned - the warbreed's' handlers eventually caught on to Xuna's scheme, and started keep an eye on the sky for her appearances as well as engaging in confusing manuevers down ash-flooded side-alleys to delay the duo even further. On occasion they ran across multiple warbreeds at once, who took ever-so-slightly longer to deal with, or whose handlers overran the freedmen groups rather than the other way around with their superior armor and weapons. Still, at the end of the day, the Warbreeds and the extermination squad handlers proved to be no match for Xuna and Yarvost's arcane efforts and their utter ruthlessness in battle.

Once Xuna had ascended into the sky for the last time and had ascertained to her satisfaction that there were no more Matathran soldiers present in the town, she descended to announce their victory to the band of freedmen she and Yarvost had gathered. However, with her keen eyesight, she had also quickly tallied all the remaining slaves in the town's ruins. Counting those that she and Yarvost had rallied, there were only around four hundred remaining.

The pair had little frame of reference for how many had been in the town before, but her guess was that they had suffered significant casualties. A lot of this was due to the king's varying levels of arrogance and incompetence in Xuna’s opinion, though the fact that none of them had any idea how to get freedmen to fight warbreeds effectively was the prime factor in all this. Something to think about if this actually went anywhere. As the famished Xuna hunted down something to eat that was not covered in ash she broached the question so far unasked question to both Yarvost and the King.

”So. Now what”

The Spirit of the King did not answer her. Nor did she hear it again.

Xuna managed to head off the panic that would have grasped the freedmen when they found out, using her and Yarvosts newly acquired fame and influence to rally the slaves to her new leadership. Lip service was paid to the now vanished king about how his task on this earth was done and how he had left them in charge. That this would not be the end, it was only the beginning and under their competent, leadership, they and those like them would all soon be free from the tyranny of the slaver queen.

There would be a plan that they would formulate together. For now however, Xuna was happy to indulge in the feast that had been promised before everything went to hell. The survivors had broken into various larders and were busy making merry in the town square. While Yarvost could not partake in the meal he did help with preparations, using one of his swords, the butcher's blade to chop and cook meat without the need for fire. Everyone got very drunk and Xuna got to know the people she had just been fighting for several hours to save. Over the course of the evening, she learned several pertinent if not particularly helpful pieces of information.

The first, of course, was that the spirit of King Medit - if it had even truly been his spirit all - could only communicate with the freedmen through their dreams, when they slept. How he had been able to communicate at all with the treekin remained a mystery. Perhaps his particular mode of communication was somehow similar enough in nature to the Dreaming to enable contact, but there was simply no way of knowing the truth of the matter.

The second - obtained from a dying, captured survivor of the Matathran revolt band - had revealed how they had executed their attack on the town. Their scouts had infiltrated the town when they had not found an army of slaves awaiting them out in front of the city gates. They had scaled the ramparts and done away with the lookouts, and then they had encircled the town from each side for the attack itself. The survivor expressed profound disbelief that the slaves had killed everyone in the town, and had accused Xuna as being the cause in revenge for Matathran's invasion of the Emerald Empire.

"You are no better than animals! I pray Andromache burns your savage tree-god to nothing, you murderous scum! The townspeople here were innocent!" Xuna had left him to the tender mercies of the slaves he had been sent to kill.

The third, and perhaps least helpful piece of information was that absolutely nobody seemed to know what the cause or purpose of the bodies of the dead dissolving into ash was. The spirit of the King had told them it fulfilled a purpose of the revolution and not to worry about it.

The fourth and final piece of information she obtained was that the revolution had been sparked almost entirely overnight by the abrupt appearance of the Spirit of the King in the dreams of the slaves. There had been no lengthy organization or period of prolonged dissent - the slaves themselves, most of them born into the role, simply seemed to be highly impressionable. The only reason they had no revolted before when they heard dissent was because the same naivety that made them so suggestible also made them supremely vulnerable to the influence of fear and terror. The only reason they had revolted at all had been because of the nigh-mythical aspect of the Spirit's presence as it conversed with them, and because of the common knowledge of the story of Good King Medit.

Eventually the sun set completely and the moon rose high above them. While the animals went to bed the two Treekin rested and planned for the future while watching the road into town from the walls. You could never be too careful after all.

Oh look. The Guild is working again. Fancy that.

Brief update. I got started on my reviews but have been kept from accessing the Guild the last few days by the egregious 504 errors. I just now managed to come on, and have saved all the entries, so I should be able to continue working on them now. I will aim to have them up by tomorrow, guild-functionality permitting.
Brief update. I got started on my reviews but have been kept from accessing the Guild the last few days by the egregious 504 errors. I just now managed to come on, and have saved all the entries, so I should be able to continue working on them now. I will aim to have them up by tomorrow, guild-functionality permitting.
I will be formulating reviews for all of the entries, as was promised long ago, though I will not be voting. Expect them up by Saturday.
The Kingdom of Shenra -8- Empire of Matathran

-8- The Dictatorship of Morkt -8-

The Serifine bridge leading over the river Vulgate, leading to the Merken crossroad and the city itself, had been built in the era of Heroes with aesthetics rather than tactical considerations in mind. Although the gap across the river was not altogether too tall nor particularly treacherous beyond that inherent of a mildly turbulent river. Despite this, the bridge had been built much higher and taller than it needed to be, entirely out of stone, with carved statues acting as support pillars rising from the river itself to hold it aloft. The bridge itself had a central causeway with two foot-paths by the side, partitioned by neat, square slabs, and the middle of the bridge featured two awned balconies presiding over the flowing current below. Immaculate care and craftsmanship had gone towards its construction, such that the passage of the centuries had barely weathered its structure and, much to the rankling resentment of the dryads, had proven too sturdy to demolish in a timely manner before the Dreaming Grove North of Merken had been moved to traverse the river Sem - whereas, had the bridge been built with tactical considerations in mind, it would have been a bare-bones affair made from wood, readily and easily disassembled or burnt down to impede the progress of enemies across Vulgate.

The aesthetic aspect of the Serifine bridge was somewhat lessened by the stark change in scenery.

To the South, where previously the border had been occupied by a long and tall wall of forest and a multitude of Dreaming Groves, there was now nothing more than rolling hills of billowing dust, some of it still smoldering and casting embers onto the wind, pock-marked by the carcasses of fallen trees, their forms ashen and waiting for a strong enough breeze or some forceful passerby to scatter into dust. The Wall of Ash carried on over the rolling hills, fading over the distant horizon.

To the North, where once the tall and proud city of Merken, seat to a linking branch of the great Yaval and the most prominent feature of the skyline for kilometers, there was now a great dome of Ice, standing stolidly and impossibly where the great walled city had used to be - impossibly smooth, shedding no meltwater, with any part of it chipped away being immediately recast. The very atmosphere around the great dome has been warped by its appearance, the structure seeming to give off a pale, cold light through which the afternoon sun filtered through as though it were glass, casting the whole of the area in a curious sepia half-light.

Thus, the view from the Serifine bridge might have been more aptly described as portentious rather than scenic - a fact exacerbated by the presence of Matathran and Shenra's armies, encamped just below the bridge itself in a vast network of tents, wagons, makeshift earthworks, pallisades, and even small guard towers that had been erected on the spot by the industrious forces. Burning campfires supplemented the swirling embers still dancing on the wind, while the sound of sawing wood and clanging metal reverberated from one end of the encampment to the other. The grounds themselves, just shy of the glacial marshes, had been stomped and crushed to relative flatness amongst what had previously been uneven, hilly terrain - no plantlife of any sort seemed to remain, nor were there any animals present beyond beasts of burden - not even birds were present in the skies, and the few which dared to take flight were set upon swiftly by vigilant Harpy auxiliaries.

To the west where the marshes that gave the region half its name, formed from the four rivers that swept down through the region to lake Sem, three from glaciers sleeping on the northern edge of the frozen cliffs and one from Matathran itself. The marshes stretched out for kilometers, their water overflowing their banks now that the spring had hit the land, forming a muddy quagmire between them as their waters bled into one-another. The plant life in the region was adapted to these changes in water level however, and as the land flooded they simply overcame it with tall stems or the ability to float, creating large regions of buoyant vegetation that could be traversed neither by boat nor by foot. Further from the river's edge trees could still grow, their roots now surrounded partially by water, forming five snaking trails of woodland that weaved along with the courses of the rivers. The swamps were home to all manner of creatures, from giant snapping turtles, drake-like cockatrices, giant armored leeches and more mundane things like large otters, herons, storks and swarms of freshly hatched mosquitoes and midges. Among their dangers the marshes now also featured the lurking Treekin, who where diligently preparing for their enemies arrival. Their general presence given away by the silhouette of a colossal ent that could be seen on the horizon, which was being used as a command center for the operation by Sunrost the Eagle and Masilta the Red.

The gentle current of the river lapped upon the sides of a small boat headed for the lofty bridge above. It was a simple craft with no sail carrying five men, somehow propelled without use of oar. One of the men towered above the rest, sitting like a statue at its aft. They called him Radoslaw, the greatest of all the shaman plagues to be born from Morkt. He focused quietly on moving the boat while its other occupants looked at the scene around them. It was a horror to them. Never had so many men at arms been mustered in their lives. It had taken these forces days to construct a makeshift city which rivaled any of their homeland.

One of the lesser men in the craft seemed unamused. He sat with his back to the prow and gingerly placed a clump of shreaded leaves into his front lip. He was Trygve, the most legendary of all his kin in Morkt. A true raider and an inspired, if unhinged, genius. He smiled with wry ammusment at the faces of his kin. They were used to raiding small villages, unwalled fishing ports, merchant craft in the night. Yet this was a gathering for true war.

The boat cast itself onto the shoreline just beneath the ancient, arching bridge. Trygve leaped from his perch and brushed of his hands. His characteristic saunter was much more than sealegs. "Keep your mouth shut and wait for the Dutchess." A booming voice was heard. Trygve grined back whimsically over his shoulder at the giant Radoslaw.

"If I am to fight this war for a woman, I need to know my part. Besides, I am quite sure they will love me." Trygve retorted in his twinkling norseman accent. His wide smile betrayed ramains of black leaf litter among his perfectly white teeth.

The Morkt agent's journeyhad been long. They had been forced to sulk through the glacial marshes like rats to avoid detection. Agents of Shenra had seen them through the many dangers which filled these lands. It had been days of travel in the horrid muck. The boots on their feet were rotting off and flesh was starting to follow suit. Their bodies carried the sulfurous odor of the wetlands, though it is not certain these brutes ever smelled much better. Their matted leather armor clapped quietly as they approached the dazzling figures atop the bridge. If the barbarians were out of fashioned, their body language didn’t show it. They approached their hosts with unnerving confidence.

The individuals they met at the bridge's center were as Trygve might have expected - a proud number of soldiers bearing elaborate banners standing astride officers in more elaborate ceremonial armor, all pomp and display, with an ostentatiously adorned carriage astride the bridge just behind them - which was where the first surprise made itself evident. Rather than any evidence that the carriage had been pulled by a team of horses, there instead stood only two gargantuan men - easily three and a half meters or taller, both adorned in comparatively massive, fully articulated plate armor and chainmail. The arrangement of the metal rails at the front of the carriage suggested that it had been, for all intents and purposes, pulled by the two gigantic men, like some kind of obscenely oversized and ornate foot-cart.

Alongside the Matathran, but distinctly separate, where the people of Shenra. Clad in furs and armor made for a colder climate than the Matathran, the majority of the warriors would remind the raiders of various human milita detachments that they might have encountered on the Emerald Empires coastlines. Though these men and women wore heavier armor, more furs and where almost exclusively armed with double headed axes and light oval shields the stylistic similarities remained intact. More strange where the variouse inhuman people who accompanied those warriors. Most numerous where the harpies, winged humanoids with talons instead of feet who appeared to be exclusively female who where perched around the area, wearing light leather armor and armed with wooden crossbows and broadswords. Fewer in number where the divolfs, two headed humanoid wolves armed with crude weapons and armors that had been hired as mercenaries.

At the front of the Shenra soldiers, flanked by a small number of royal guards in fule plate mail which was adorned with the furs of stark white Lions, was Queen Rosabella the third and her entourage. The Queen herself stood adorned in her royal regalia, a gem encrusted crown that was older than the already ancient bridge they were meeting on, as well as plate mail that matched her guards. A considerably less gaudy version of the silk cloak adorning Matathran's chosen representative was draped across her shoulders. She was currently leaning on a two handed axe, its head pressed to the ground, one of its blades eternally aflame, the other encrusted in sharpened ice. That blade and the Queen's two harpy companions were the only obvious shows of magic on display: the two women where draped in fire and ice respectively, carfully controlled so that the queen felt neither the blistering heat nor the soul sucking cold they exuded.

The bird of flame was coated in a thin layer of what appeared to be molten rock that left little to the imagination, the burning material outlining her every curve. Here weapons and helmet had also clearly been built with style over substance, the axes splitting so their twin blades looked like lethal tuning forks, her helmet adorned with gaudy demonic horns and did little to protect her face. The ice harpy at least offered a measure of modesty, a simple soft blue dress covering most of her legs, a chestplate of ice interwoven ice covering a blue glowing sapphire held at her core covering her chest. Her head meanwhile was adorned with an elaborate helmet/mask of ice, the creation covering her eyes and hair, leaving only her mouth exposed beneath a crown of horn shaped icicles. What set her apart from her kin, even her burning opposite, was the anomalous existence of a second, smaller, pair of wings beneath her primary set, a pair that rested over her shoulders and upper arms. She was the one standing closest the queen and the two had been in quiet conversation before Trygve made his entrance.

Standing immediately at the head of the procession was something of a puzzle - a lean figure wearing armor not of plate metal, but instead scarred and visibly worn carapace from some manner of giant insect; the gaps between the armor covered with fluttering folds of gleaming silk fabric that bore a certain mezmerizing quality as the sunlight passed over it. The figure's entire body was veiled by the stuff, even their face, leaving the envoys of the Morkt to converse with a blank face of gleaming silk. The shoulders for their cape was adorned with rows of bristling spines, and they wore a weapon strangely across the front of their body, some form of long club seemingly fashioned out of the same carapace as their armor, but petrified as though in stone, and with a curious hollow chamber running through its length. Though it was impossible to read much of the man's expression or stance - if they even were a man - Trygve could tell just by the markings across the armor that this figure at least was a seasoned veteran of combat, their somewhat deceptively glamorous garb aside.

Then, set off quite a ways behind the procession stood four more of the gargantuan armored figures, all bearing tower shields and maces larger than nearly any other hand-weapon Trygve had seen before - all standing at attention and surrounding a single, smaller figure adorned in a full suit of brilliantly gleaming mithril platemail, their face obscured entirely by an armet, but with a billowing crimson-red half-cape bearing golden filigree that clearly articulated their status. They bore with them a large two-handed blade, sheathed in an ornate scabbard of brass and pewter, their hands propped and folded atop the weapon's pommel as they leaned on it, using it as an improvised cane over which to look at the envoy across the vast distance - though, from their positioning and distance behind the rows of figures meeting with Trygve at the center of the bridge, it did not seem like they intended to speak - merely to witness.

The figure with the silk-veiled face greeted Trygve and his party as they approached - their masculine voice finally betraying their gender. "Halt. Name yourselves and state your intentions, or else be gone - by way of retreat or else by blood." His voice was calm and conversational, but spoken with an air of certainty. He did not seem to move, though the entrancing folds of his silken garbs beneath his carapace armor made discerning his movements damnably difficult.

Trygve casually surrended up his hands in an almost mocking fashion. "Well met. Truly a strange way you greet a guest." He glanced wryly at Radoslaw who clearly felt more onus about the thrilling host before them. "I am Trygve. I assure you I would not be here in such a state if I were not called." He smiled again, black soot seeping slightly from his bottom lip. "Now, perhaps you will tell me who you are?"

"I am Grand Marshal Tafari Adeaberash, of the Imperial Trident of Matathran." Possibly somebody of faint importance. He swept an arm vaguely to the side so as to indicate the procession. "We are the joint Matathran and Shenran delegation to meet. You claim you were called here?"

Trygve careened his neck in subdued frustration before composing himself. He leisurely tossed the small handax from its scabbard and onto the bridge's cobbles. He approached the gleaming figure, arms loosley agate. His eyes darted about, fueling his smile as it appeared the guards were tolerating his advance. The ponces in ceremonial armor were frowning with distasteful expressions and strained lips, but made no move, and if the man with the carapace armor had reacted at all it was impossible to tell. Trygve sauntered within inches of the Grand Marshal, life on a cramped boat perhaps muting his sense of personal space.

"Yes, I was called." Trygve said quietly to the incredibly dressed figure, reading into every scar on his ornate armor. They made no move to stop Trygve's approach, seemingly standing stock still even with their faces scarcely further apart than an apple. "Perhaps you have heard of me? No? Well I assure you these men have," he gestured to the company of Shenra. "I have come from far far waters and cut my way through the pestilence of this land to hear what you--" he placed a gentle finger on the bony armor "--have to say."

"Head back and ask the Shenrans if any of them can bear to vouch for the repute of the muck-raker who tilled their way through the marshes." Tafari's voice finally gained some critical inflection as he issued the order to one of the bannermen to the side - one of affected and deliberate boredom. While his expression was thoroughly masked, it seemed he was likely to be just as much of an ass as Trygve himself. The servant turned and hurried back towards the Queen, his face twisted as he attempted to refrain from choking - whether on disbelief or laughter unknown.

"Where did you get this pretty blouse?" Tryve asked Tafari, whose imposing figure loomed inches from him. Smiling as he continued his inspection.

"I made it myself from the asses of giant spiders bigger than that carriage, but rest assured, you are still the largest one I have ever seen." Tafari delivered with a complete deadpan.

Trygve grinned recklessly, "well I assure you, I too would dress with such taste if I could afford to drown. It appears you have assembled the greatest living anchors I have ever seen." He gestured at the heavily armored monstrosities among the Matathran party. "But that one," Trygve pointed at the mithril clad warrior far beyond, "is the prettiest thing I would ever want to drown in."

"Mithril is light as a feather and somewhat buoyant. The only way you could drown in it would be to choke on your own prattle."

"Perfect! Then that is my price."

"You demand to choke to death? A curious request, but carry on with your inane yowling and your price shall be shortly met."

"I'm sure you think of my throat quite longingly."

Rosabella was meanwhile in hushed talks with a messenger who had arrived earlier that day, who had been caused this whole elaborate, and in her opinion excessive, welcoming party to be set up. While she could not hear what was being talked about, the man was both a mess and looked to be making an ass of himself, which reflected badly on her. At the arrival of the banner man the three got things straight about who the man was claiming to be. Not wanting this farce to go on any longer to the detriment of her Queen the Frozen Angel Hajnal launched herself skyward, landing beside two shit talking warriors a moment later.

“You are Trygve, servant of the Morkt, correct?”

"Ahhhh, Hajnal. Your beauty preceeds your legend. I am the man you seek."

"No you are not." Hajnal rebuffed him firmly. "Where is your mistress?"

The great horned figure of Radoslaw strode briskly to the side of the bridge, all too eager to cut Trygve's banter lest he get himself killed. A great wooden pole was propped up from below by the remaining boatcrew. He held it firmly as a shilouette began to climb it with long tendrils. Onto the bulwark of the bridge emerged the Dutchess. Her skin dazzled in the soft afternoon light. With delicate grace she lifted herself into a stand, her tentacles curling about her base perfectly. She breathed in the foul air but maintianed an aura of complete composure.

"I am the woman you seek. And you are the ones I seek." Her voice was melodic, utterly enchanting. The Morj nobelwoman looked at the party before her with dazzling eyes. They were gorgeous. Such finer specimines than the ilk that served her now. She cut a wanton glace at the two ragged figures who had quietly backed themselves to a respectable distance. They were rabble compared to the shining visage before her. Though land dwellers they were, she almost felt the tinkling feel of admiration.

As she slinked closer to the delegation she looked onward behind them. At first she could not truly understand what she was witnessing. Such immaculate carnage. And yet the realisation came over her in a wave. Behind these men, clad in the finest armor the gods could imagine, lay the refuse of thousands of living trees. Her body visibly flushed. It was the most magnificant thing she had ever seen. Her children had perished at the hands of the Emerald Empire's living ships. Caught and slaughterd like fish in market. She had sworn her life to avenging their death yet these creatures, these... land dwellers, had cast them to ash. Thousands of them. She once again heaved a deep breath of air, but this time it was the sweetest thing she had ever tasted. The smoke filled her lungs with pure lust.

For a brief moment her composure was lost as she beamed at her surroundings. She effortlessly twirled about, admiring the toil of armed men who extended to the horizon amidst the ember soaked air. When suddenly her euphoria was stopped. Though she had missed it before, behind her loomed a giant treekin city perfectly encapsulated in ice. Surely this magnificant army had nothing to do with such a bewitchment as it stood well beyond their advance. It must have been the work of Yaval, but why?

"Dutchess of the Dictatorship of Morkt, in the name of Andromache, Empress of Matathran, I, Tafari Adeaberash, Grand Marshal of the Imperial Trident, greet you." In her combination of wonder turned to curiosity as she inspected the dome to the North of the bridge, Tafari had strode towards her somewhat, still standing a respectable distance away. He proferred to her a faint bow, an inclination of the head accompanied with a sweeping gesture of the hand away from his hip. The tone of his voice - the only real means by which to measure the man - was perfectly neutral. Neither deferential nor irreverant, his words were simply declaratory in nature. As he rose from his bow, he proceeded to fold his hands together in front of him, awaiting her own introduction. In a way, it was astounding that he was capable of such diplomatic tact after having played a verbal game of oaf's chicken with Trygve.

The Dutchess returned his greeting with a shallow courtsey. "Well met, Tafari Adeaberash. I see you have met my man, Trygve. I do hope his presence has not made ill of us. For all of his vermin demenaor, he is an effective tool for serving my Mistress. And yet, I should hope that a time will come when his depravity is not needed. A time when greater... more refined...friends can be made."

She audibly heard Tafari take in a breath of - Shock? Shame? Surprise? All?

The sound was low, but one of the bannermen had caught it as well. "Pardon me, are you well, Grand Marshal?"

"...Yes. I am sorry. Your words...reminded me of someone I work with closely. I apologize for my lack of composure. Please continue, your grace."

The Morj envoy paused, smiling curtly. "I have saught your company at the behest of Shenra. They tell me our struggles are common, and that a great warrior lies amongst your rank. So fierce she slew a dragon made of the enchanted forest itself. The latter of these I see as clear as the day before me. I should hope that the former will come to light with equal clarity."

"Nothing would please us more to find a common interest between the wills of our Empress and your Mistress. As a token of recognition, we would like to present you with an assortment of gifts, freely given, with the hope that they will foster a desire for a better understanding between us, not only of our respective intents, but also of our cultures and people." He waved airily with a hand, and one of the bannermen rapped smartly on the carriage door. It swung open, and two hominids stepped out into the light. Both of them were young, adolescent elves, a boy and a girl, of some speciation that the Dutchess was unfamiliar with, possessing bronze skin, exotic orange-colored eyes, and raven hair with faint flecks of a deep, wine-red coloration tracing it. They were dressed in a loose, rich red silk tunic and a knee-length dress respectively - and both bore what must have been especially form-fitted wrist shackles and slave collars around their necks. Both bore brands of the bursting central emblem of Imperial Matathran upon the outside of their wrists, plainly visible to any onlooker. They both carried with them small chests of wood, with pewter inlains between their metal rims, the surface of both vessels capped with artistic scenery rendered from molded pearl. They stopped a few steps before Tafari on either side of the man.

"Our first gift is a map of our Motherland, Matathran, made to be suitable for carrying within the ocean's depths." He lightly touched the male elf on the shoulder, and he opened his chest. Within, on a pillow of red silk, was a metal tablet of steel, with a detailed geographical map of Matathran engraved upon it with multiple metals including brass, pewter, and gold. Each of the cities was set in the surface of the equisite work by a brilliant gemstone of different coloration.

"Our second gift is both familiar and foreign to you - a pearl, of which there are many in the ocean, but of a kind which can only be found on land, in the color Ammacre." He touched the female elf on her shoulder in turn, and she opened her own chest to present the Dutchess with an impossible sight. As Tafari had said, it was a pearl - a large one about the size of an eye. Its coloration - its surface shimmered and shifted, blurry and bewitching to look at, as if her eyes could not process its true coloration, its false-iridescent brilliance playing havoc with her eyes.

"...And of course," Tafari tapped both of the young elves on their shoulders once more, and they dutifully closed their boxes in turn. "Chattel, tasked to bear these gifts for you upon your return home." Both of the elves immediately sank to their knees before the Dutchess, laying their small chests in their laps and folding their hands atop them, looking down at the ground before her deferentially.

The Dutchess's eyes sunk ever deeper into the beautiful light of the Ammacre pearl, until the slave closed the box containing it. The map had its vaule, as did fresh meat for the horde. Yet there was something else, something unspoken about the pearl. Something about it was dangerous, yet it called to her. She approached the bronze skinned slave holding the pearl's chest. Without word she glarred into her eyes, upon which which she immediatly reopened the trove. A warmth cast over her as she glimpsed into it once more. She reached out to touch it. But stopped herself. She peered over to Tafari and spoke more amorously than ever. "I think we have found a friend indeed."

"We shall see." Tafari said, his voice still even and neutral in intonation. "Is there anything you would like to declare or present before we proceed?"

"I do," she replied modestly as she reached into a pouch at her waist. She produced from it a small black stone, no larger than pebble. "The Pearl of Two Realms. Tiny in size, it is as great a token as one can deliver in such troubled waters, not knowing what may befall them on a bridge such as this. Placed atop the tongue, it will give its user breath when no breath can be had and protect them from the pressure of the deep or the hoof of a mammoth. Perhaps one day your great warrior can use it to see my queen in person. I am sure it is an audience she would long to acquiesce."

"I am certain it may well come to pass." Tafari answered cordially as he received the stone in one hand - and with a flick of his wrist, it vanished into the depths of his silk robes. "Now, onto business. Let us be transparent and truthful with one another. It is known to us that your people revere the Primordials of the Sea. It is known to you that our people fear, loath, and despise most ilk and form of Primordial since ancient times. We both know that our peoples have respective and mutual interests, and so my inquiry is: Can our peoples tolerate and cooperate with one another? If not until the unseen future, at least for the duration of this conflict?"

"All things are children of the water. And all things will return to the water in their end. What you and I believe will not change the tides. What confronts us in this hour is the pestilence of living wood. Hearts can only be changed when there are still beating hearts left in this world, would you not agree?"

"May I then request the word of your Mistress that no conflict shall arise between the Morkt and Matathran that is borne specifically of religious strife?" Tafari asked, his tone finally changing faintly, an emphatic hint of encouragement seeming to dangle off his words.

"Provided we can be sworn the same, my people will not raise arms against yours less you molest our waters. Yet these waters we would trust to the tempered hand of a friend. Such an understanding has been want to find amongst landfolk though. We are placing a grave deal of trust in your maiden voyage."

"Would you please formally designate 'your' waters?" Tafari inquired pointedly, their head leaning inwards slightly. "If only for the sake of clarity. After all, at the end of this endeavor, the Empire will boast its first oceanic port, and we would be forewarned of what realms to be mindful of."

"You would be wise to include our thoughts on all Northern water, for our friends and intrests are deep and wide. But we would welcome a port, and all the needs you would have to maintian it. As it already seems, you are infinitly more sutible to inherit it than it's current host. However, you will find traveling the ocean is a dangerous task. Were this port to serve the intrests of my Mistress, she would be handsome in her investment for such an undertaking. It is rare that men and metal of such caliber exist under one banner. Perhaps in sharing these commodoties we could share with you ours; the fish of the sea and a map of the world."

"While it is well that our peoples would have an interest in mutually beneficial exchange, it would appear we have reached an impasse. A port is an arm, its vessels hands, their crews fingers. My Empress cannot promise that every interest in the port would serve the interests of your Mistress necessarily, and I cannot help but feel you have implicitly declared that she claims the entirety of the Northern Ocean as her domain - such being the case, conflict would be inevitable, and leave Matathran with no ability to agree with your request in good faith. Understand that we do not desire to infringe upon the dominion of your Mistress, nor do we desire to take against or make lightly of her interests, but it is inevitable that not all our ends can meet with one another." Having said that, a hint of tension crept into Tafari's voice. "So, I must ask you again to formally designate your waters, those which are to be neither infringed upon nor molested."

The Dutchess paused for a moment. Clearly the ambition of these creatures was more industrious than she had predicted. "I beleive that our understanding of the oceans differ, but to this end I can understand our persepectives. You will be welcome to our waters and we will be welcome to yours. However, you will stay above it. Fish only to sustain the mouths at sea and at coast. Let us each be the rulers of our own domain, and let the spoils of such worlds be traded with open hand."

Tafari said nothing for a period, before raising an arm and producing in one hand the black orb the Dutchess had presented as a gift. "Then what might we make of this?" He inquired airily, his voice implying the raised eyebrow with his veil.

"As you said, our gifts are in good faith. The user of that stone holds the faith of two worlds. But it is faith my Mistress freely gives."

"I understand. The Empress will treasure that gift - such faith is dear beyond words." Tafari answered. He did not tuck the stone away into his sleeve again, and instead cradled it between his two inverted, steepled hands as he continued to speak. "If we understand one another, then it is agreed that no strife shall be borne between us. We had hoped you would simply forsake strife borne of religious differences, but the magnanimity of your Mistress in her assurance shall be returned in turn. To each our own realms shall be ruled without infringement, and so no strife will be borne between us." He paused momentarily, rocking the cradled orb in his hands back and forth for a moment before speaking anew.

"The next, obvious course is to inquire of your Mistress if she will honor and hold to all agreements made, past and present, between the Morkt and Matathran, which are made manifest in good faith between us?"

"I speak her intent. A bright and prosperous future is on our horizon. It is a new day that will start when the trees between your land and ours are all but ash."

Tafari stopped rocking the Pearl of Two Realms between his hands as he responded. "I speak with the intent of the Empress of Matathran when I say she will honor and hold any and all agreements, past and present, between Morkt and Matathran, made manifest in good faith - if your Mistress so to will swear likewise." His voice was calm, but it was clear from the explicit formulation of his words that he had not been pleased with her answer.

"I swear, on the name of my Mistress, Ruler of Her Relm, to honor these agreements, past and present, between our people and the Matathran."

Tafari's head bobbed behind its veil. "Of course. Now, onto more pleasant matters - I imagine the Morkt have their own particular interests and ideal end as to the outcome of this conflict. Would you care to elucidate?"

"The spread of the Emerald Empire must be halted, its seeds must not scatter from this continent to the shores of Morkt. For the sake of the waters their scourge can not spread, lest they will eventually find their way to the depths of the sea. No alliance shall be made by you to defend their pestilance. Secondly, my Mistress will desire the gems and metals of the land above all else and must be met with supply. In good faith these needs can be made with trade, for items dear to your heart. But to risk the tool with which she harnesses these treasures from the earth," she gestured pointedly at the two slave raiders who had backed away from the conversation considerably. "She must have a greater supply awaiting her risk. With these two things, my Mistress will be satisfied."

"Of course, for both to be satisfied, Matathran must seize and control the Western coast of this region. As I am sure you can see, the largest obstacle to this goal has been eliminated, but the war is not yet over." Tafari gestured out to the expanse of the Glacial Marshes, where the looming form of the colossal Ent Titan just barely perceptible by the horizon. "We also expect...intervention by other powers in this matter, sooner rather than later. The Morkt's control over the deeps would be a crucial factor in denying the Emerald Empire reinforcements - and, of course, if you can help us traverse the glacial marshes safely, it would greatly expedite our conquest and annexation of the region. I can promise you that Matathran will do fair and mutually beneficial trade with your people as a matter of course so long as the conflict is won, but your assistance in these matters would predispose the Empress to bestow significant favor and privilege upon such dealings beyond what might ordinarily be expected."

"And to this end an armada sails here now. They will be arriving in the Bay of Lights shortly. I would not be speaking to you now if the agents of Shenra had not assured me our mutual intent. A storm has cast itself upon the West. It's darkness shrouds the treekin's allies. The time has come to strike and it is the will of the tides that our two paths should match in cadence. The Morj will set to the deep waters and molest the vessels of Yaval and all who seek to aid them. Our slaves, simple as they are, are forged for life in this place. Their boats will cut through these marshes like ghosts and their axe's will ring on the hides of all who terry your path. Your men are built for their purpose. Their ability to make good on that purpose is evident in the ash I breathe now. Let me, in turn, show you the worth of my people in our newfound alliance."

"Of course, I would be remiss to have issued you a promise from the Empress herself without paying you heed of another she has already made." Tafari answered, seeming to cut straight past everything the Dutchess had just said. "The Empress gave her word to Queen Rosabella of Shenra that Matathran intended only to annex the region of the Emerald Empire South of the river Sem, and thereafter, that Matathran would assist..." Tafari seemed to draw the word out, allowing it to linger on the wind. " their own invasion effort to reclaim the Emerald Empire for their own, once they are ready to do so. The Empress Andromache will honor her agreement no matter the consequence - so it begs the question, is it acceptable to your Mistress that, if only for the moment, only the glacial marshes are being seized from the kin of Yaval?"

"For now." She replied gracefully.

Tafari nodded again, faintly, at the brief answer from the Dutchess. "This is good to hear. If it will please your Mistress to hear, relay unto her that Matathran has been investigating a means of deterrence - a threat of sorts - with which we might effectively sue for peace for. Once the campaign had ended, we will gladly share our knowledge in this realm with you. The Morkt Archipelago may yet be safeguarded though the whole of the Emerald Empire shall not be taken to task overnight."

"An agreement which advances our intrests without the price of life or wealth is agreeable should you find it. But should you not, know we are bound to the task which will protect our waters for generations to come. If it costs us blood, it is water well spent."

"It pleases me, and surely will please my Empress, to know that the Morkt shall undertake the endeavor with such fidelity. I think we can satisfactorily conclude our initial discussion here - I suggest we both retire for a few hours, then come together again somewhere more...accomodating to tactical considerations as well as comfort. I imagine we have much to discuss."

“Wonderful!” Trygve exclaimed, having again placed himself near the nobles deep in discussion. He gingerly cupped the back of Grand Marshal Tafari’s neck with his hand and delivered a quick peck to his veiled cheek. “Come! Friend! Now show me the shiny pots from which you drink!” He proclaimed colorfully, patting the Marshal's back like an old companion.

Down by the Northern end of the bridge where the boatmen were still tidying up the riverboat after its arduous journey, they looked up with faint surprise and shock when they heard shouting coming from the bridge - followed by the sight of Trygve being bodily thrown off the side of one of the awned balconies near the center of the bridge, down into the water below with an laudable splash.
I am here. Posted multiple times this week and everything.
A collaborative post with @Legion02 & @DracoLunaris.

Empire of Matathran

The Eastern Aeolian Plains

The Seeker's journey from Cruoix along the Northern road of the Sea of Slate proved to be uneventful. The clouds of dust thrown up by Matathran's innumerable armies out on field manuevers receded into the distance, their patrols and bands of pilfering soldiers staying with them. Although the terrain was rough, jagged and uneven, the road was more or less straight with gentle inclines and well-maintained. Eventually they had left the Sea of Slate and approached the city of Tellum, which had been for all intents and purposes a smaller and less prosperous Cruoix, even built into its own accompanying mountain range. Lee had even seen another marketplace plaza filled to the brim with map vendors, albeit smaller and less outlandishly crowded as the last had been. Their brief stay in the city had been thankfully uneventful - the group had been stopped by an Invigilator once, but she had only checked their documents and did not bother inspecting their belongings. After a brief inquiry, she had even given them a cordial warning.

"Take care heading North, foreigners. The people of Chalice are not as generous as us here in the South, and they detest foreign folk. I would think long and hard on what route you have planned to take."

Having then left Tellum, the walk once more was proving to be uneventful. A single band of soldiers led by an Invigilator had passed by, but had not stopped or challenged them. The terrain here was also much more pleasant and accomodating than the Sea of Slate had been - for kilometers, all the band could see were rolling hills, bountifully replete with grass and small shrublife. Small and large field animals could be seen grazing here and there across the land.

In a strange way, the expanse was eerily desolate in that, beyond the occasional ruin of remnant of some older structure, it appeared entirely uninhabited and undeveloped, which was strange in and of itself. Matathran was a militant Empire, and the bountiful and fertile plains were proximal to several cities and townships - but it seemed untouched by any kind of civilized life.

“Don’t you think it’s strange?” Lee asked Ittain. Who, for a first time, was not writing in his books but was looking around with the exuberance of a child. “So much space. Acres of land, stretching far beyond the horizon. Yet nobody to tend the farms.” Ittain remained silent. He was blind but in a way he saw the world in a different way now. He urged the group to hold near every ruin, just so he could watch it. As if the ruin spoke to him. Once he even nodded at it, as if it truly was a living thing.

Eventually, one quiet night, Ittain spoke up. “It’s fear.” Lee looked at him questioning. “It’s fear boy. Fear for rocks and stone. Fear for ground and air. It’s fear why nobody tends the fields and walks the paths.” Ittain said in a serious voice, as if they were right to fear these places. But Lee just snickered at the foolishness of Matathran. Which earned him a quick hit over the head by Ittain. “Show some respect boy. You do not see what stirs in these ruins. What lingers in the shadows. You would do well to heed their fear.” But Lee wasn’t convinced.

“If there is magic in these places, we would know it. The Seashell talismans would tell us.” To prove his point, her motioned one of his colleagues to pull out the silver seashell necklace. “See, nothing’s happening. We’re safe.” But Ittain stayed vexed on the seashell. For he knew what Lee couldn’t hear. That the shell really was humming. Humming in response to a distant force.

The next day, having passed a crossroads leading elsewhere, out of the aether, the seekers heard a lingering, melodic harmony drifting through the air. It was haunting and beautiful - and seemed to come from the West. The silver seashells did not glow in response, but each of them seemed to reverberate in tune with the musical perturbations.

“You hear that.” One of the Truth-Seekers stopped and peered into the west. All the others stopped too. After a while, Lee asked: “Hear what?” The Truth-Seeker kept looking westward and didn’t respond for a long time. Until Lee walked up to him and shook his shoulder. “Hear what?” he repeated. The Seeker shook his head as if he just awake from a dream. “It was… something. I don’t know what it was.” Lee examined his colleague for a moment. “You still hear it?” The Seeker shook his head. “No. It stopped. Didn’t you hear it? It was kind of beautiful.”

“We need to move.” Ittain said with a kind of urgency that he rarely displayed. Then one of the mercenaries cut in. “I heard talks at Cruoix about it. Said it’s an ill omen.” Lee turned around and gave the mercenary one angry gaze to put him back on his place. “Was it… haunting… as well?” another Seeker asked, one who wandered a bit off the path into the tall grass. “Like… wind playing… strings.” He slowly, absent mindedly said. “Yes, Yes!” the first Seeker exclaimed. “That is exactly what it sounds like!”

“You’re both mad.” Lee said, and right that moment he too started hearing the hum. The luring sound far in the west. Suddenly he knew what the others meant. He understood what they meant with haunting but beautiful. Slowly he took his first steps west. With every step, he felt as if a snake he never felt coiled around him dropped off. Like a weight was lifted from his shoulders. But then a firm, heavy hand on his shoulder broke the feeling. “We need to move. Now.” Ittain’s voice was above all stern. Suddenly Lee knew he was more than just right. He shook awake the other Seekers and they started making haste towards the next city. Another Seeker and two more mercenaries claimed they heard something humming, but it was Ittain’s stern hand that kept them moving.

They walked until dusk, and still the melody followed them. Ittain adamantly insisted they keep moving through the night, refusing to let them rest while the harmonious wind could still be heard. Finally, as dawn broke the next day, the distant echos faded and let the group be - much to their relief. Also to their joy, they could clearly see the city of Easthorne on the horizon - a short ways more and they could finally rest, unmolested by mysterious and haunting melodies.

The city was, once more, similar to Cruoix in many ways - built into the sides of the mountains, but something unseen here was markedly different. The very air and feeling of the place altered - as soon as they made it past the city gates, the difference was made clear. Absolutely nobody would look at them - occasionally, a child would stare and point, or there would be a glance and a murmur - some of the sidelong looks were hostile, others piteous. Att Ittain's insistence, they nevertheless headed for one of the better inns in the city to get a full rest to make up for the night of forced marching - and for the first time since they had entered the Empire, Lee's silver coins were rejected outright as payment by the inn-keeper.

"Foreign currency is no good here. You are welcome to stay, but I insist you pay me in marks."

They had managed to pay, but it was clear that their journey would be all the harder from here on out. The remainder of their stay had proved uneventful, other than the stares and being pointedly ignored. They had been stopped in the streets no less than five times by Invigilators, all of whom had been brusque. Most had declined to inspect the company's belongings, rudely.

"As if I would want any of my men to touch your filthy belongings."

One had insisted on an inspection, but it had been cursory in nature - which was all the better, as while Lee checked their books, he noticed that the wax seal for one of them had fallen off. Had it been noticed by any of the Invigilators, they would likely have gotten in trouble for it - they had been very fortunate so far, it was doubtful the Invigilators in Chalice would be so laid-back in their inspections. Lee went out of his way to visit the Imperial Demesne in the city before the group left, admitting to an inspector there that the stamp had fallen off and needed to be replaced.

"It is quite fortunate you happened upon me and not somebody else." The scribe had commented as he heated the wax needed for the stamp. "Almost anybody else here might have accused you of stealing the book, even though it's not written in any tongue I recognize. Be warned that if any of your other books lose their stamps, you would be better of abandoning them than trying to get them restamped in Chalice. They will claim it was stolen no matter what you do." He stamped the book and then, in a casual tone, coerced Lee to pay a hefty fee. "A fine for your carelessness...and for my discretion."

The road to Chalice was markedly different than the one before - now, the party had crossed the mouth of the Matathran Vale, the so-called Cradle of Legends. They now walked on holy grounds - this place was where, in ages past, Primordials had seen fit to erect their most private and sacred of sites. The mountain range behind them carried on into the distance, and the vale itself lay bare before them. Unlike the Aeolian plains however, the fields here were worked, occupied by farmhouses and small dwellings. Herdes of cattle were the only animals to roam freely. There were ruins and remnants of ancient sites here as well, but amongst there number, several looked to have been repurposed as part of newer, modern structures, or else partially torn down for use as building material. Not all of sites they saw had been defiled so - some were still whole and unweathered, some visually and audibly still suffused with untold power, their surroundings desolate and abandoned. Any one of them would normally have been of great interest to the seekers, but they had a goal at hand, and they would likely still be there on the return trip.

After a few days of travel, the metropolis of Chalice could be seen over the horizon. The city was massive, with tall towers and walls - it resembled more a massive fortification, huge beyond reckoning, matched only perhaps by the great garrisons of the Heavenly Spheres' walls - and the very air about the city was filled with a bitter, rankling animosity that could be felt like a wound in the fabric of the world.

On the road, the Seekers were like children getting a new toy every day. Every evening they stopped near ruins, making sketches and examining the sites. They were so enthusiastic that Lee had to install a forced bed time only to get them in their tents. Yet now that they were gazing up Chalice’s walls, a strange fear reverberated through all of them. “We are not welcome here.” Uttered Ittain in a grave tone and Lee knew he was right. Easthorne was unfriendly enough. He really did not want to discover just how hostile the people of Chalice would be. He knew they still had plenty of food to reach the Totem of Lucrore and get back to Easthorne. At least if they wouldn’t be greedy.

“Get me the map.” Lee ordered. For half and hour he and the other Seekers pondered over the piece of paper next to the road. Eventually they came to the realization that they could only pass Chalice from the west and then go around the river. The true debate though, was about whether or not they would return back to the road after evading the massive city. Eventually it was settled, they’d stick to the road for now.

“What do you reckon happened here?” Lee asked Ittain. The old man walked far more careful now. As if he knew danger could appear at a moment’s notice. “Old scars became new wounds. This was the home of many Gods and Goddesses. We thought we were their children and we acted like that. We made things that should have never been made. Human hubris killed the Gods, but we could never vanquish them. Now the Queen of Conquest rules here. With a thirst for everything outside her borders. And Lee, we are outside her borders.”

As they went around Chalice, they found the journey itself more hazardous than they would have preferred. As they passed by farmsteads and workers in the fields, many people stopped what they were doing entirely just to leer angrily at group - but around the outskirts of the city sprawl, there were signs of more feral forces at work. The liminal space between society and the wilderness was filled with creatures of exploit...and predation. The group had been walking on a minor foot-path for some time, with a smaller group of three peasants - or slaves, as far as any of them knew - walking ahead of them a short distance. Then, without any warning, the ground just to the side of the road exploded in a blur of motion, a monstrous mass of limbs and spined fur erupting from the earth as the three men screamed in terror - only for their shrieks to be silenced as they were each seized in term by a long, multi-jointed limb, each victim run through dozens of times each by the spines along them before being pulled into the hollow earth -

And in the next moment there was nothing. The patch of ground the men had been walking along was whole again, seemingly indistinguishable from any other part of the earth. Only upon very careful observation could the group see the faint seam separating the lid of dirt from the ground, covering the barrow of whatever foul creature had seized the group just ahead of them. Even knowing it was there, both it and the terrifying thing it hid were nearly undetectable - its presence could not be felt. They had journied around the foot-path, slowly, each of them now keenly alert and viewing every part of the road with suspicion.

No moment after that felt safe. In fact, some of the mercenaries swore they could see another spider trap a bit further. Lee did not want to risk one of his own, so he often chose to go around the supposed trap. But eventually their destination was within reach. The Totem of Lucrore was near.

The Emerald Empire -8- Empire of Matathran

In response to Matathran’s intruding arsonists, Yaval had called up all their available forces to repel what they had expected to be a full scale assault into their forests by the formerly encamped forces of Matathran. Instead of plunging headfirst into the forest however, the observers sent to keep an eye on them reported that Andromache’s soldiers were instead busy digging a long line of trenches just outside the forest’s edge, flanked by two more traditional forces. This was not war as the Dreaming forest knew it, or rather, it was not how they expected animals to wage war. The Dreaming Forest was generally more than happy to fight within terrain of their own making, but it was not a strategy they had seen used offensively by their foes before. Debate swirled within among the courts of the Emerald Isles as the elder Trees attempted to figure out just what Andromache’s plan was. This left Enzar mostly to his own devices when it came to organising their initial response.

The forces readily available in and around Fort Cher consisted almost exclusively of the Dreaming Forest themselves, auxiliary forces of the human variety did not cope well with extended encampment within the Dreaming Forests for exactly the same reasons so many of the Calid Cohorts had died on their way through it. The forest made little effort to tell friend from foe, and there was little interest in anyone taking time out of their day to babysitting a bunch of armed peasants. The bulk of the forces consisted of dryad infantry and small to mid sized ents, all of whom Enzar sent to fan out across the area in front of the enemy’s three armies. Most stayed three-hundred to four-hundred meters inside the treeline, the woods mostly obscuring their presence. Some of the smaller archers were sent forward, taking up hidden positions behind or in the trees close to the forest's edge.

Along the flanks of the north and south most armies two small squads gathered out of sight of any watchers. Consisting of deer riders armed with javelins, and monstrous ents, who ranged from the sizes of a large moose to bigger than elephants. Upon the backs of these ents road or stood Dryad archers ready to protect their kins flanks and rear from attack. They all stood ready to harry the flanks of the two armies or to make a long ride all the way to the rear of the entrenching army. Reports from the veteran Xuna warned them that there was something, in her words, ‘off’ about the rear of the enemy's central position, but as of yet they Enzar was not dissuaded from setting up those forces. The adventuring pair themselves had set up a little inconspicuous watch station behind the enemy lines, the raven yapping away at them to keep them up to date with situation in the forest.

Back near fort Cher, Enzar held his various trump cards. While enchanters, spellswords and the odd mage were scattered in and among the infantry, Enzar had kept the most prominent, or dangerous, ones up near him, ready to be deployed to where they were needed. Some of the mages were in the middle of setting up their magic, calling beasts from the forests, setting up ritual circles or helping the Trees grow additional soldiers in the form of sproutling berzerkers. Along with the mages were the Titans, ents so large their heads popped out the top of the treeline. Currently however they were crouched down, kneeling with their vast stone swords and shields resting like towers on the ground, as Enzar did not yet want to reveal how many of the colossi he had available.

For the most part Enzar was happy to sit back and let the Matathran dig their holes, every moment they spent doing so was more time for the various fire fighting forces to return to his side. It also gave their animal spies, mostly birds circling high above more time to gather data for the Trees to mull over.

The sights Enzar's airborne spies allowed him to see were troubling. All three armies were replete with a number of wheeled and carriaged conveyances of some form, all of them either arranged as protective shells around or else mounting small-scale siege engines of some kind. More worrisome, the central army, in addition to their earthworks, had near their rear section massive assemblies of some kind, clearly not fully assembled and intended to be moved - possibly even larger siege engines for use on Cher if the army managed to get close enough, but it was quite strange. Cher was nearly a kilometer from the forest's edge - no siege engine, no matter how well-made, had that sort of range, and deploying a siege engine inside of the forest canopy was a ludicrous proposition. On top of all the obstacles and impediments to them being able to fire effectively, the forces of the forest could rain torment on them from all directions. What foolishness could they be planning...?

As for the sap-thirsty warlord Andromache, her position was found easily enough. Amongst the numbers of the Northern army, there was a large bulge of gargantuan infantry, all adorned in gleaming armor, arranged in a vanguard formation that would likely take to the front of the army's formation shortly - and right near the front of the vanguard was a single figure, resplendent in what was clearly ornate mithril armor. Given the rumors of Andromache's temperament, Enzar could only hope she proved rash enough to charge headlong into the Groves. Even given the size of the soldiers in her vanguard - each of them had to be more than three and a half meters tall - they were nowhere near numerous enough to be able to fight the forces of the forest.

The Southern army was perplexing - they were arrayed in a wider line of battle than the other two forces, and they seemed curiously fluid in their movements, but there did not seem to be anything unusual about their makeup beyond the minor siege machines amongst them. They were possibly there to thwart flanking maneuvers, but they seemed altogether out of place.

Otherwise, the armies seemed to be largely identical. All three had formed up large frontline formations of shield-bearing spearmen, all of whom were adorned in outlandish, spined armor. The small-scale siege machines each army had were being continuously moved forward, which seemed strange - how did they intend to protect such instruments so close to the front line? Likewise, each army had a fair number of colossal, mammalian soldiers amongst them just behind the front lines, likely the same species as those in Andromache's vanguard, but only sparsely armored - although their massive tower shields and bardiches were still a source of concern.

More than that, Enzar could not reliably discern - the mid and rear sections of each army were swarming throngs of men and women, some armored, some not. Some of the individuals present seemed entirely unsuited for warfare, some even entirely forgoing the use of weapons and armor, handling equipment the likes of which Enzar had never seen before. Everything about the enemy's actions was simply baffling, and he could not discern whatever it was Xuna said was wrong with the enemy's rear formation. It looked just like the rest, lightly armored men and women thronging about according to some unknown imperative.

Matathran's armies did not give Enzar much time to dwell upon what he could see - no sooner had the smaller siege engines reached the frontline, than the lengths of larger ones near the cores of each army began to swing, and the boughs of ballista began to twang.

At first, the effort seemed incredulous. They appeared to just be flinging simple borders and the wall of the forest.

It was not until the first volley of projectiles made impact that the intent behind their use was made clear. Tied around each of the boulders and ballista bolts were lengths of twine and rope securing clay fire-pots - upon impact they burst open, flinging oil and pitch in wide swaths from the force of the landing before then going up in massive blazes.

The siege engines were reloaded and firing again inside of a minute. None of the armies made any effort to advance whatsoever, holding their positions. Andromache stood impassively at the head of her vanguard, still just behind the frontlines of the Northern army.

The siege engines fired again. Innumerable blazes sparked up once more. Reports came flooding in - the fire was seemingly only spread by water, and efforts to use the wind to extinguish it just further flung its vicious fuel about, engulfing more of the forest in flame. Still, the armies did not advance.

Their plan became evident.

They had absolutely no intention of fighting the forces of the forest within their territory.

They were just going to burn everything in front of them to the ground until there was nothing left but ashes. That was what the larger siege engines were for - as soon as the armies could burn enough of the forest away, they would advance to do the same to Cher. They had been planning this battle for years now - there was no hope of simply sitting and weathering the hail of projectiles. The Dreaming Groves would run out of trees before Matathran ran out of ammunition and fuel.

The Dreaming forest’s forces were struck with panic. The archers that had been in the front part of the forest where incinerated along with their hiding places, the soldiers deeper in where horrified by the sudden appearance of the raging inferno. Where it not for the will of Yaval, sporting the kind of calm concern only people watching catastrophe from hundreds of kilometers away can have, the Emerald Empire army might have broken right there and then. Instead their presence reduced the imminent rout to a kind of skittish fear, they all believed that if their oldest and wisest did not wish for them to flee, then surely there was a plan. That plan turned out to be a load of hot air. Fort Cher itself began to glow, veins of sap emitting a soft golden light as the interlocking trees channeling magic lead by Yaval’s will and assisted by many of the mages that had been stationed around it. A breeze picked up, then a Bluster, then a fully fledged Gale came roaring out of the forest. Enzar and the forces near the fire were ordered to either side as the breath of the forest fought back against the burning hail fired from the Matathran war-machines. The wind did not put out the fire and it only slowed the projectile rain slightly, but it did blow the flames and the light oil away from the heart of the forest, back towards the Matathran line.

With the burning doom delayed somewhat, the forest began its response. The firestorm and their enemies’ reluctance to attack did give them one thing, and that was the ability to bunch up their mobile forces into larger groups instead of having to match the Matathran line meter by meter. The forces in the center where thus supplanted north and south to oppose the two remaining accessible armies. The only forces that remained in the center where a skeleton crew, mages helping the trees direct the wind, the colossi and, behind the fortress itself, the empire’s assembling air forces. To the North, the fortress of Mekren began charging it's own power, sending it's mana flowing down from it through the intervening Trees towards the sight of the battle.

While the forces of the forest assembled to sally forth, the fires Enzar had blown back towards Matathran’s front lines via gale finally looked like it would reach their front lines - only for the smoldering fires burning through the grasses and shrublife to halt abruptly short of the spearlines. Although Enzar could not discern the break in the terrain through the eyes of their avian spies, just in front of each of the lines the terrain had been torn, stamped, and crushed so that no form of plantlife or fuel remained, leaving a barren patch of terrain across which the fires could not cross, likely made during the night. Matathran had come intending to set fires, and clearly had come prepared for the possibility of having to deal with some of their own.

Before the Emerald troops had finished assembling in the treeline they sent out a number of probing forces. In the North archers, some of them survivors of the fire volly, took up positions in the tops of trees a little ways back from the edge of the forest, granting them some cover while letting them still have clear sightlines out at the enemy forces. Armed with composite bows made from the wood of their birth trees they could easily target the armored line across from them, the height of their tree perches granting extra range and protection from returned fire. They were wise to have taken cover as no sooner had they made shelter in the treetops than the smaller, wagon-shelled siege machines each army had rolled up to their own front fired on them - onagers, each firing clumps of stone lit aflame, did not have far to throw and did not require great accuracy. The archers, having indicated what portions of the forest they should aim for, had finally given the smaller engines a target. The trees at the head of the forest in front of the archers were quickly reduced to flaming chips of shattered wood and shrapnel. While the forest archers experienced this new threat, ten armored figures, spread out and evenly spaced so that they would strike all along the lines of the north army’s lines, emerged from the forest at running speed. As they were lone figures, each some distance apart, the Northern army’s line held firm with their spined spears ready, the Nairail Lancers resolute in their intent to hold the line while their comrades, the Febris Auxiliaries, rained volleys of flaming arrows down atop the figures.

The figures lurched from the impacts of the arrows, but after a brief delay to regain their balance they continued onwards none the worse for wears, their armor having resisted most of the impacts, and the ones that had punched through seemed to do nothing to dissuade their charge. As they drew closer it became clear that they were coated head to toe in the dull brown and green armor that most dryads wore, against which the fires of the arrows smoldered angrily, incapable of igniting the strange alloy protecting the figures bodies. Their faces were obscured by skull masks and they were armed with a pair of long knives and their eyes glowed amber in the empty sockets. Despite what convention demanded of this kind of insane charge, the figures were eerily silent as they closed with the front lines.

Meanwhile the tree sitting archers reacted to the flaming volly, one spellsword archer for every onager notching an arrow tipped with a small chunk of amber instead of an arrowhead, while the rest notched normal arrows. Taking aim the all let loose their shots simultaneously, the arrows flying towards the covered siege engines and the soldiers beyond. With remarkable accuracy almost all of the enchanted arrows found the gaps in the covers that existed where the arms of the onagers exited, sailing over the top of the arm and thumping harmlessly against the back wall of the covers, falling to the floor at the feet of the operators working in the hot interior. The rest of the arrows flew onwards, a few deliberately thudding harmlessly into the protective covers or through the same gaps as the enchanted arrows. The rest aimed squarely at hitting the slightly lighter armored Febris auxiliary forces who had revealed themselves with the fires at the ends of their arrows, though most of them simply took cover behind their pavise shields - though not all of them were quick enough, taking arrows to the head or chest. The survivors and replacements filtering in from behind were quick to rise and retaliate with their own volleys before taking cover once more.

After the dryads unleashed their own second volley to seed the missed targets and add an additional arrow to hit what targets were not quick or shielded enough to evade, the onslaught ceased and the archers pulled back to put the same amount of tree cover between them and the onagers as they had previously. While this was happening, enchanters came up from the hidden back lines, staying far enough back to not be annihilated by the next volly, water flowing from their crystal balls that then gathered around the burning stones, smothering them and the fires they had started with floating bubbles of water - only to then have to take cover and work double-time to extinguish even more blazes as dozens of flaming stones pummeled their positions once more, sundering the treeline and obliterating their cover. In the deep of the woods, Enzar listened impatiently to the mages acting as his eyes in the sky describe what was going on, ready to give the order for the next phase of the plan once the ten charging figures hit the front lines.

When the figures reached the front lines they charged straight into the braced spears, making no attempt to bypass them. Some were impaled on the lance tips, yet they continued to run forwards blindly, pushing against the spines that lined the spear's length. As they were held back warriors to either side of impaling soldier ineffectual stabbed at them, the speartips proving just as ineffective as the arrows had been at killing the figures. Those few that avoided impalement due to lucky deflections of speartips by their armor barreled headfirst into the assembled warriors, bladed knives failing ineffectual as the weight of the impact bowled some of the Narail lancers over. When the Cosmogone Infantry, warriors armed with heavy machetes who were gathered just behind the front lines, came to their comrade’s aid, the nature of the figures came to light. Heavy blows hit weak points in the armor, severing limbs, and from these it was revealed that the figures were not wood, but instead made of bound together stone and bone inlaid with glowing amber lines. The helmet of one of the figures was knocked off, revealing a large chunk of amber shaped like a manikin’s head. As the confused front line soldiers made short work of the figures once their ineffectual combat abilities were revealed, the Dreaming forest mulled over the data they had gathered from their puppeted test golems.

Enzar however, focused on the now. At his order the next stage was initiated. Ten nature mages reached out with their minds with the help of the forest and found the small glowing beacons of amber that were in the blunt arrowheads and staked in the chests of the golems. Inside these amber chunks where specially modified seeds, seeds the mages pounded mana into, causing them to devour the energy in their amber shells, splitting them open as they grew at a tremendous rate. From the chests of the golems thorn covered vines suddenly burst out, lashing violently at the surrounding soldiers. At the ends of some of these vines flowers bloomed into biting mouths that snaked out to biting into the necks of soldiers. Inside the confined spaces of the onagers, the effect was much more deadly, the rampant growth rapidly blocking exits as it tore into the unsuspecting crews. As this chaos engulfed small parts of the northern defensive line the trees in the north forest rustled ominously, as the Dreaming Forest began their charge. The treeline glowed as the Trees, drawing power from Mekren fortress in the far north, prepared to cast a combined spell to aid their children’s assault. Amongst the ranks of the Northern army, the Narail Lancers backed away from those war wagons erupting with overgrowing vines, pulling back and forming a concave defensive formation around them instead, the vines just unable to reach them. The Febris archers were too distracted by the oncoming charge to direct their fire to these new barrows of overgrowth, but invariably, a clay pot was tossed at each one, the wagons and the growths within transformed into bonfires.


As the overgrowths behind the frontline sowed chaos and death around them, even as they were whittled away by the Cosmogone Infantry, keen eared listeners would be able to hear a buzzing droning noise join the sound of the inferno as, high up in the air where the birds fly, a swarm of fuzzy creatures could be seen emerging from the south of the burning forest. At the center of this force where three Hivers equipped with collars like the one on the raven currently sitting with Xuna and Yarvost, one of whom was carrying large cloth sack with small the claws found on their front legs. As they flew they buzzed the Hiver equivalent of war drums, a deep angry hum that had driven the un-charmed insects around them into a frenzy and set them on a warpath. Charming the social creatures into being an anti human fighting force had been the Forests first attempt at defending themselves in the first war with Shenra and while the treekin had mostly replaced them in that roll, they still had their uses. As they buzzed high above the range of the Matathran ranged weapons and bypassed their carefully dug trenches and armored frontlines, one of those uses became abundantly clear as they arrived above Matathran’s central heavy siege works.

Once the Hiver swarm was all together the three mage controlling them switched their buzzing tone from a steady war beat to a frantic signal to charge. At this order the Hivers dropped, plummeting head first toward the assembled workers and soldiers. About fifty meters above the ground the hivers reorientated themselves, head level, abdomens lowered as they turned their dive into a swoop, spreading out as their rear ends split open like beetle shells, revealing their dagger sized stingers. The insects, many as big as war hounds, ripped into the lightly armored Pyrulen Auxiliaries, venom field stingers stabbing into their chest and backs and knocking them to the ground. After a few moments of injection the hivers pulled themselves out of their victims and ascended skywards once more to perform another death dive against the creatures that threatened the Trees that they pollinated. As their minions spread chaos, the Hivers’ mages gingerly gathered around the large cloth bag they carried with them. With extreme caution one reached into the bag and scooped out a salvaged firepot. The third mage then pulled the plug in order to light the pot, which was subsequently tossed down towards what they suspected was a fuel store for the army. Then they moved over to another suspected powderkeg and tossed another. The mage’s fear, a fear that manifested despite them not actually being in any danger, and the ill-suitedness of the Hivers’ pincers at performing their task, made this a slow process, but gradually over the course of the attack, fires started erupting haphazardly around the entrenched camp. Having descended low enough, both the Hivers and their minions were susceptible to the fire of the Febris Auxiliaries , but thankfully the archers were entirely preoccupied with other matters and it appeared for a moment that they had the run of the central army's core.

That moment ended when one of the Hivers was shot through the head with an arrow - not a flaming arrow, but a black-painted one. As the swarm of Hiver bees descended a second time to attack the lightly armed Pyrulen Auxiliaries, many of them found themselves unexpectedly cleaved into four pieces as the unassuming engineers pulled vicious, dual weapons from nearby hiding places - and Enzar discovered the irregularity with the rear formations of Matathran's armies.

Scattered amongst the Pyrulen Auxiliaries were Matathran Questors, and these were individuals the forest knew, as they had traveled through the Emerald Empire for a time - their tendency to support the endeavors of the human populace made them unwelcome. They were dangerous - well armed and trained with their distinctive Geyser blades and composite bows, their unexpected presence at the back of the enemy formations was telling of how much thought Matathran had put into the attack. It was well that they had been revealed by the Hivers - had the forces of the forests attempting a flanking maneuver from the rear, they might have been entirely unprepared for the concealed threat. The threat itself being revealed was of a mixed blessing however, as many of the larger Hiver insects and their controllers quickly found themselves outmatched by the rapid and tenacious Questors, cleaving through the massive insects with ease and shooting at the mages flying above with their bows.

Unable to evade, the mages pulled the plugs for all their remaining firepots and scattered them as far and wide as they could even as they were riddled with black arrows, intending to do as much damage as possible before they went down. Explosions of flame erupted throughout the central army's interior as a result, and even as the Pyrulen Auxiliaries tended to the fires, quenching their insatiable hunger with some form of alchemical dust designed to neutralize their fuel, their siege machines had once more paused in their operation, allowing for the forces of the forest to tend to the flames near the front of the wall of trees without fear of bolt or boulder - for the moment.


The archers in the north treeline braced as a cool mist began to seep from the forest, through the army of the Dreaming forest suddenly burst. The army was big. Much bigger than Matathran would have expected based on their reconnaissance and information gathering efforts. The amy was a mixed mass of ents of various sizes and Dryads rushing between the legs of their giant kin. The dryads wielded mainly war hammers, two handed weapons with a blunt mass one end and a spike on the other, that were made to fight armor, or flails, made to bypass shields. Some wielded glowing swords, others glowing items of unknown people that looked nothing like weapons. All but a few where clad in the same armor that the figures had worn, but with normal helmets in place of the skulls. Those that wore no armor where strangely graceful in their movements, despite the massive swords, hammers and maces they carried with a casual ease.

The ents meanwhile where armed with either large amber swords, crude bludgeons of wood, natural weapons like claws or thorn covered vines. Some of the larger ones also had dryads riding their shoulders, using them as living siege towers, though oddly those armed with bows held their fire as they advanced. Above the army soared Nyranda The Serpent. She flew in pace with the forces below, a wall of wind flowing in front of the section of forces she was above, seemingly meant to direct projectiles away from herself and them. Her destination was clear, both she and Enzar, riding an ent below her, were headed straight for Andromache. As the army crossed the intervening distance the mist followed them, rolling just ahead of the first figures. It did its best to obscure something odd about the army, something someone good at noticing patterns might discern.

As the Northern army rearranged itself to brace the spearlines for the coming charge of the forest's forces, new war wagons were wheeled into gaps in the front - but these were siege engines unlike any the dryads and ents had ever seen, being neither onagers or ballista, but some heavily front-armored contrivance with a hollow nozzle mounted mounted towards the front. As the forces of the Dreaming Forest charged forth, closing to within twenty meters of the Northern spearwalls, several of the larger hominids, the ones with the enormous tower shields and bardiches, let out roars and they were instructed to charge forth themselves, ripping past their own frontlines to meet the oncoming forest defenders - and near the center of the army, the lines parted to reveal their vanguard. More than a hundred of the gargantuan hominids, all clad in gleaming full-plate armor, wielding full shields and heavy maces, trod forth, their very footsteps causing the ground to tremble. At their head was a single smaller figure, fully armored in mithril plate and with a half-cape of crimson silk hanging from their back. They too carried a shield, but their weapon - it appeared to be a torch of some kind, a haft of metal with a head shrouded by cloth fabric - but the figure tore the cloth away, and a second star was born. Andromache lifted aloft her mace imbued with essence of starlight, and the forest defenders charging towards her vanguard found themselves blinded not only by the rising sun behind Matathran's forces, but by the brilliant empyrean light of the Empress' mace.

As the army advanced the archers behind them rained down arrows on the front line, though their shots were mostly blind now, thanks sun and starlight combined. Matathran's own archers had no such problems however, the Golots around Andromache carefully spaced to shield them from the starlight and the sun at their backs - the Febris Auxiliaries rained volley after volley of flaming arrows upon the charging forces, only the central charge being warded by Nyranda safe from the attacks. Arrows rained down on the other forces, but it seemed to not phase them, the mist obscuring what damage if any had been done. The monstrous hominids all charged forwards, some of them simply attempting to slam their massive tower shields against the approaching forces while others swept their oversized bardiches in massive arcs - Only for their attacks to strike harmlessly through the mist-like forms of their supposed foes, dispelling the massive illusion that had been cast along the lines - the shroud of mist to either side of the forest's central charge dispersing, and revealing the ruse - the excessive number of dryads and ents that had been charging them had all been part of an arcane deception. The only forces present were those charging down the center, the cavalry and a small group in the North. The rest of the army had in fact been phantom mirrors of the central army.

Just before the Golots hit the front lines they were bombarded by a volley of blind spells and arrows. Had the archers atop the Ents been able to see, they might have been able to shoot down over the shields to take some of their enemies out via skilled neck shots. As it was the most plinked into thick armor or a massive shield. The mages and enchanters had more success. The ground the Golots charged over was sprayed with water, frozen with ice, or rapidly overgrown with grasping vines. Geysers erupted around them, icy daggers and thorns rained down, blasts of high pressure water buffeted them, some of their lungs filled with water or carbon dioxide (though without clear vision may of these these hazards simply appeared harmlessly in mid-air or off to the side). The ent upon which Enzar was riding, Lestarn The Magnificent: current civilian leader of Cher, sent out long vines from an extended arm, that coiled around the shield of the Golot in front of them just before the two met. There was a scream as the sharp tips of the vines found small vulnerabilities in the mutant’s armor - but the resiliency of the monstrous hominid proved to be impressive; it’s screams turned from those of pain to rage, and with a mighty yank it tore back the vines winding through its armor, pulling Lestarn forward with a mighty heave and raising its massive flanged mace to pummel him.

Nyranda herself with her immense size was able to project attacks over the shields of the wariors, and so she and a few combat mages she carried as passengers blasted several of the monstrous hominids with wind blades, giant thorns, enchanted arrows and a singular bolt of lightning. Many of the Golots had the presence of mind to simply raise their shields in the air to ward off the attacks - exposing them to the mages on the ground - though a number of them simply took the attacks in stride. A few were staggered as their armor was dented by the more powerful spells, but by and large most of them were just driven into a rage, charging forward even faster and the force of their blows redoubling for the efforts of Nyranda and her mages. Across the clash, Dryads and smaller Ents were sent flying or reduced to splinters as the Golots sallied forth, sweeping their maces from side to side in devastating strikes until they finally found sturdier targets in the form of the Behemoths, those few gargantuan Ents who outmassed even the giant armored warriors and who could withstand the initial, savage blows from their maces.

After a moment, the chaos and confusion caused by Andromache and her starlit mace cleared, and sight returned to the forces of the forest - what they saw was troublesome. The diversionary tactic of the massed illusion had drawn out the lesser, unarmored hominids away from the center where they had amassed their forces - but now, those same enraged giants had turned and were charging down the rows of spearmen. If they did not act soon, the forest defenders would find themselves flanked and surrounded - but, entangled and engaged with the Golot vanguard as they were, there was little hope of being able to maneuver away in time unless they could find a way to reorganize their own charge.

The Dreaming forest was used to and expecting to be surrounded, on an open field battle they were always going to be outnumbered, so the question was not if an envelopment would happen, but instead when. The optimum situation with the shock strategy they were imploying would be to break through the center before the sides could be repositioned. To succeed where many had failed, from Spider Council Garo to the ninjas of the heavenly sphere, to drive a living stake through heart of Matathran. As the brutes came in the dyads and ents at the back of the roughly square shaped mass of troops moved out to intercept the Warbreed flankers as they came in one by one, two ents grappling with them to tear their weapons aside so arrows, swords or hammer spikes could strike their lightly armored (compared to the Golots at least) bodies. The carcase was then thrown aside in time for the next warbreed to come to its execution - though as the staggered line of charging Warbreeds began to overlap, the ents found themselves engaged in a more level battle as they tested their might against the massive hominids. At the same time the sides of the force began to spill out around the Golot charge, because here and now, they actually had something approaching a numbers advantage over the three hundred Golots.

As the battle raged near the center of the frontlines, along the side of the battlefield the previously stationed cavalry division made its move, racing along beside the mist draped infantry, heading for the side of the army’s northern front. When the illusion was revealed the Northern tip of the army was the only other part seen to be real, and even then, it was much smaller than it initially appeared. As they charged towards the lance line, gaps appeared in the line as the Matatharans unleashed two of their unique weapons. The first were warbreeds, hulking figures three and a half meter tall, armed with wooden shields and oversized bardiches, who counter charged the emerald forces. The second where more war wagons, these sporting nozzles on the front instead of gaps on the top, that slowly rolled out in front of the spearwall. Seeing these through the eyes of the birds above, Yaval sent huried messages through the dreaming to try and create a gap, expecting ballista or onager shots to hit their lines at any second. The sides of the lines spread out, soldiers in the middle slowed a little to great gaps for their kin to filter into. With precision and speed impossible without the Dreaming, gaps gradually formed in front of the siege weapons. To deal with the Warbreeds, beastial ents were quickly rushed into the brutes path, their long clawed hands and lashing prehensile vines grappling with the shields and bardiches before they could hurt anyone but the ents in question, who received large stab wounds that did little to dissuade them from holding fast. The Dryads behind them circled round the fighting giants and with great overhead swings smashed at the legs of the warbreeds.

Their efforts largely succeeded, and they managed to fell a number of the larger hominids and deal with their prone forms - but the remainder either had the presence of mind to release their weapons and grapple with the Dryads directly, lifting them up in massive hands to crush them or even use them as improvised flails, or else to simply kick the dryads away with fearsome shoves of their feet before turning their attention back to the ents they grappled with. In response Dryad archers ran round past them and, avoiding their flailing legs, shot arrows at their exposed necks. Others were simply overwhelmed, their supporting legs broken as they kicked a different dryad, causing them to crash down to the ground almost comically. A few were even killed by the ents as they turned the warbreeds own abandoned weapons against them. In the end the warbreeds did what they were meant to do, halting the momentum of parts of the charge and inflicting casualties where they could.

The rest of the army pushed on, charging the spearline with a furious warcry. The clash of forces was as tumultuous as it was chaotic. Many dryads simply found themselves impaled once, and then subsequently half a dozen times, their fight ending before it had even begun. Some of those impaled managed to extract themselves, stumbling back to the forest seeking magical healing, their bodies missing limbs and sometimes even the head.

The ents however, small and large, were able to take the spear-jabs in stride and began to viciously wrestle against the entrenched Narail lancers, both attempting to shove the other back while their supporting archers and mages flung arrows, spells, and fire pots at each other. Seeking a way to breach the line, several ents and dryads noticed the war wagons Yaval had instructed them to avoid, having formed gaps in their line in order to not stand in front of them - but, if they were anything like the onagers and ballista Matathran was using, surely at such a close distance they could not be a threat - and so, those treekin moved in front of the war wagons, intending to either clamber over or else crush the machines.

But then, with a bellowing hiss, the armored war-wagons with the nozzles mounted on their fronts each blasted a pressurized jet of a clinging, sticky pitch, which was flung over the ents and dryads in front of them, and the many flaming arrows riddling their sides that before had struggled to ignite a blaze caused them to almost explosively combust, their many limbs and branches going up in flames that consumed the followers amongst them. Their legs and lower bodies, being closest to the ground and receiving the largest splashes of the viscous fuel, were the first parts of them to begin to smolder and crack apart from the heat. However, having sprayed the assembled dryads and ents with fuel, the wagons had inadvertently created pools of the stuff on the ground in front of them - some of which had then been ignited as the wagons rolled over them - though none of the Lancers behind the infernal machines seemed worried at the prospect of the fuel-bearing contrivances catching aflame - and in fact, as the war machines trundled forward, platoons of Cosmogone infantry rushed out from behind it through the gap in the wall of lancers, clashing blades with the dryads to either side of the spear wall and hacking at the limbs of those ents still standing, or else assailing those whose legs had been burnt out from under them. As they rushed out to take the battle directly to the enemy, the spear wall behind them closed once more with lancers.

Panic and fear stopped those now trapped between burning columns of fire from doing anything as the wagons cleared the gap, trundling forwards over fire that began to lick the undersides of the war wagons, threatening to engulf them in flame. The Cosmogone infantry rushed out to keep the wagon safe, but here was a foe that the dryads could fight. No brace of spears keeping them at bay, no surprise fiery death, just warrior vs warrior - though strangely, the mammals seemed keen on pressuring and fighting their way further and further from the rolling war wagon, almost as if they wanted to keep the dryads away from it - or did not want to be near it. They were helped and hindered in this in equal measures by the Dryads. On the one hand, they didn’t want to be anywhere near the fire either, the Emerald line naturally being squeezed between the flames, bulging at the center as the wooden warriors backed away from the flames. Meanwhile the weapons of the Dryads made advancing difficult, the massive hammers in particular caused any they did not kill or wound to be stumble back from the powerful impacts against their shields. Lacking any defenses however, the hammerers who failed to use the reach of their two handed weapons to kill or displace their foes suffered greatly at the weighted tips of the Cosmogone machetes, their armor weaker than plate despite offering similar coverage and the cutting ability of the machete was much more capable of slicing off body parts than the stabbing spear walls had been. The real danger where the flails however. Dedicated shield killers, the chain mounted bludgeons would wrap around the top of the heater shields used by the Cosmogone infantry while they used short, thick, hard knives as a kind of buckler, parrying the strikes that came towards them rather than trying to block them.

Through a combination of a desire to get away from the cones of fire forming a rat trap behind them, the bulge caused by those close to the fire backing up, the forces dealing with the warbreeds finally finishing off their foes and joining the fight and the range advantage the larger armed ents had over the spearmen with their massive swords and cudgels: the areas furthest from the fires of the spear wall were broken down. Holes started emerging that the dryads eagerly stormed through, clashing with the Cosmogone infantry they found beyond with similar eagerness as their kin fought against those near the fire. In some places where the line was holding impatient Dryads convinced ents to toss them over or on top of the three man deep spearwall, their wooden constitution allowing them to survive the falls and take the defenders by surprise. The confusion of the sudden appearance of flanking forces behind or within their mists broke the nerve of some of the spearmen, and the resulting small breaks in moral and formation were exploited, causing more breaches in the lines.

But, the battle was not over for them - and even as the second smaller force clashed with the line of lancers and the fuel-projecting war wagons, monstrous ents in the shape of wolves, lizards, insects and other vicious creatures barreled into the narrow northern tip of the army, the archers on their backs taking potshots at the defenders. Behind them came the deer riders, whose job it was mainly to pick off survivors and to prevent the forces on either side of the impact site from closing the gap behind them. However, they were met in turn by the Cosmogone infantry and a number of the massive warbreeds, who engaged the ents and deer-riders in turn. The warbreeds were quickly engaged and enveloped by vines and sturdy branches by the ents who immobilized them - but the warbreeds had still effectively halted their charge, and the deer riders suddenly found themselves charging into a mass of infantry. For a moment, even then they had the advantage - until the thundering of the war drums changed. Charging out of the mass of Cosmogone Infantry, a number of Invigilators clad in armor with brass and pewter filigree lead bannermen and drummers, battle-standards wavering triumphantly in the air, and with a rallying cry created a bulge of infantrymen who simply crowded the deer riders, slowing them and bringing their momentum to a halt, and the situation began to look dire as footmen with clay pots began to fling them at the ents wrestling for dominance with the warbreeds.

The riders of the ents, seeing the situation dire, sprinted forwards across the back of their kin, leaping up from their heads either climbing or vaulting clear over the shields of the warbreeds, landing on the enemy's shoulders. There they drew knives or arrows and plunged them into the necks of the monsters. As their bestial kin were freed they attempted to remount them, leaping back from the falling warbreeds, sprinting around the shields or being caught by helpful vines. The ents that were freed this way turned upon the infantry surrounding the deer riders, barreling through them, thorn-filled mouths and strangling vines catching some of them and dragging them out of the formation to their deaths. Then they continued onwards, the deer riders following after the ents in a seeming retreat. Jeering and heckling followed them until they turned round again a hundred meters out to face the front lines once more. The cavalry then tundered back in a second charge.

Much to their dismay however, by then the Pyrulen Auxiliaries had reordered themselves, having unpacked and prepared the unused war wagons still present. As the riders charged the flank of the Northern army again, two war wagons fitted with onagers trundled forward and flung dozens of flaming stones at the charging ents and deers riders, who had only moments to attempt to halt their charge and evade before the projectiles slammed into them. This volley was the first of the renewed fire of the various siege engines amongst the Northern army as they once more began to fling stone and bolt laden with fire pots at the forest itself. In response, some of the still positioned archers swapped the arrows they were using to dissuade an envelopment to the same amber tipped gems that had worked last time. Now however there was no need to time their activation and the mages who had stayed behind to heal the wounded trickling back the forest activated the vine bombs as they landed inside the onagers. With the ballistas, the mundane archers focused fire, hoping their arrows would damage the extruding bowstrings to cause them to snap in a misfire. vinebombs were also pelted on top of some to attempt entanglement of the strings. Many of the onagers collapsed in on themselves as overgrowths of vines erupted within them, but almost none of the ballista were affected - although many of the axles for their wagons broke under the additional weight on top of them, they were still capable of firing, and their strings of wire were too strong for anything but direct hits by the arrows to damage. The rain of boulders raining down on the forest slowed - but the hail of bolts continued unabated.

The archers on the charging calvary attempted much the same, though they did not have the luxury of a protective screen of trees, nor did they carry enough bombs or arrows to effectively decimate the artillery. The charging cavalry spaced themselves out as best they could and relied on the inherent inaccuracy of the artillery weapons and a hope that their foes would not have time to set the correct range or be able to guess it - but, even having fired the moment they saw the siege engines setting up behind the mass of infantry, many of the engines had already fired before the dryads could loose their arrows, and whether either by fortune or by intent, the aim of their operators was largely true. Many of the onagers shortly collapsed as the vinebomb arrows fell through their gaps, but the damage had been done.

The deer riders suffered the most from the hail of stones: their mounts panicking even if they were not hit, either throwing off their riders or simply fruneing and fleeing, as hail of skull sized rocks bombarded them. Some of the ents fell as their legs were blasted through or were blinded as their heads were struck. Through a combination of the speed of the projectiles and the cavalry however, most escaped ignition. Stones either smashed through or where bounced off hardened bark, not having enough time to heat the wood to burning point. The bed of hot rocks formed as they formed as they hit the ground was survived much as a human survives a bed of hot coals, their speed let them pass over it before it hurt them. Those who fell were left behind in a deadly fire field, some stones by chance lodged themselves in bodies and consumed the ents slowly, painfully. This did mean however that some of the side line was now being charged by massive monsters that were also on fire. The fact that the ent would soon be consumed by the flames would give little comfort to those that might soon burn with them. The presence of these burning ents split up the charge, gaps forming around them, the spearhead charge split into several smaller arrowheads. All in all, the charge lost a fifth of its members to injury, desertion, death or imminent combustion. The flaming wreckage fifty meters out also meant leaving for another cycle charge would be very difficult, and so the charge angled itself sightly west, hoping to push through to join up with the frontal assault. They were pursued by the roaring Cosmogone Infantry they had initially charged, forming several bulges of their own led by fanatical Invigilators and their Gerron bannermen, the ents and dryads hearing rallying cries behind them as they attempted to maneuver back towards the front. The remaining dryads who still had arrows did their best to ward off their pursuers, but they were few in number compared to the mass of infantry.

While the conflict raged in the North, Matathran’s central army had reordered itself after the attack by the Hivers and had resumed their ceaseless barrage directed at the forest. The plains directly in front of the army was a smoldering field of ash and ember-borne fumes, eddies of wind carrying smoke and sparks through the air. The bombarded area of the forest meanwhile had been reduced to charcoal and ash, still burning away fiercely from the volume of fuel poured onto it by the artillery. The wind continued to blow, saving most of the non bombarded area from fire. Water was used to douse any unoiled fires that started up, those at least the Dreaming Forest could extinguish with a practiced ease. The fortress beyond meanwhile was mostly devoid of life, barring what it was made of. The bustling imitation of a town was silent, its people had all gone to fight and die to protect it. Only a few enchanters, the forces mustering to attack the center (small in number, large in size) when Matathran’s Northern army fell and the immovable Trees themselves remained. All awaited either doom or salvation, stewing in restless fear and anticipation.

The tempo of the war drums heard from Matathran’s army shifted - a slower and more rhythmic sound - and, at last, the assembled force began to move. Their progression was slow - their engineers working along the boundaries of the army dug their trench lines forward, footmen ran in front of the spearline to tamper down on any remaining plantlife and extinguish what few blazes remained. All the fire that obstructed the way forward from the continuous bellowing of the wind from the trees remained - but as the treeline receded, so too did the wall of flames. Slowly, step by step in pace with the crunching and flinging of shovels and spades, the line of lancers strode forth - the massive engines of war and destruction wheeled forward behind them continuing to fling fire and death all the while. Their projectiles began to rain down upon the forest further than they had before, the wall of trees separating Matathran from Cher shrinking ever and ever further.


The Southern forest meanwhile was quite. No armies came charging out at the fluid Matheran formation, no magical tricks were performed. The army might as well have lined up against a normal forest, ready to fight windmills. There were however some forces hidden in there, but those that had lined up initially to repel the Southern army had dwindled as their Northern members filtered up past the blaze line to join the attack on the Andromache’s army. The rest stood ready either to repel any attack by from Matharan forces, unlikely as that was, or to strike out if they tried to move to reinforce their Northern countrymen.

To the South of the Matharan lines, a small army approached, their lines in battle formation marching at a swift pace. Above it, winged humanoids creatures could be seen led by a great flying beast. Scattered along their lines were blue banners, with two crowned lions turned to face a shining sun. The forces of Sherena had come to aid their allies in battle with a furios flanking charge, only to find the still scene before them.

A trio of Bannermen and a Marshal strode out from the still army to meet them. The wardrums here beat a steady and monotonous tone that had not faltered or changed since the army had positioned itself in the morning. The beast at the head of the harpies pulled forwards of the army, performed a gentle descent in an towards them, the imposing snowlion landing some distance in front of the Marshal. Accompanying her were two harpies who landed beside her, one wreathed in flame, the other sheathed in ice. The queen dismounted, setting her two sided axe that mirrored her companions elements in a holster on the snow lion’s saddle, and then went to meet the Marshal on foot. She wore the spider silk cloak she had received as a gift from Marshal Deiagn on top of light platmail that she much prefered to the dress he had been wearing when she received the cloak.

“Queen Rosabella. I am Marshal Garderome.” The man was old and weathered, his right arm missing, and a left glass eye that twinkled in the morning light. “Your arrival is as timely as we could have hoped, but the enemy has declined to engage. We are receiving reports that a large bulk of their forces have charged our Northernmost position and are clashing with the Empress’ vanguard.”

“A pleasure to meet you Marshal Garderome.” The Queen shook the Marshal left hand in greeting ”I saw something of it from the air, it looked to be a sizable force for their kind. I’d wager they don’t have much left in reserve. I can have my soldiers move on up past your lines to the north to offer aid, or take the place of your own if you prefer?”

While she was more than willing to take the fight to her people’s old enemy, hungry for it in fact, the quick march down from the mountains had left her army in less than ideal condition. She recognised that if she took them straight into a fight without rest they would suffer dearly for it.

“We have not received instruction to reinforce or support the Empress’ position, and now that your forces have arrived my orders are to begin firing upon the forest with our own engines. We were keeping them packed and mobile in case we were needed to prevent a flanking effort, but if what you say is true then I see no reason to continue to sit and wait. However, if you wish to assist beyond staying here and reinforcing us, I imagine if you took a select Vanguard of your own to assist the Empress she would be inclined to look upon your efforts most favorably.” He winked his one good eye at her. “Though I have also been given some discretion to act on my own, if you have any suggestions…?”

It took a few moments for her to discern why they were going to siege the forest, but the great pyre beyond made it rather obvious. “I don't think I would be the best person to tell you how your people wage war. Once I get to know it, I may be able to offer advice, but for now I think I will will take yours”

“I will have it relayed that a detachment from your army is moving to assist.” Garderome answered, even as he gestured with his one arm to one of his bannermen, who immediately began to bang on their wardrum with a rapid tempo. The beating of the army’s other drummers began to change, and the creaking and groaning of siege engines being unpacked and wheeled forward filled the air.

“In the meantime, the remainder of your forces should array and catch what respite they can for the moment. If whatever of the dryads’ forces are left do not want to meet us here in battle, they are free to burn.”


Back in the North, in the center of the action, the bulk of the Emerald Empire forces were engaged with Andromache’s heavily armored Golot Vanguard. Soaring above it all, occasionally picking of a Golot with claw, root or spell, Nyranda struggled to find the comparitly diminutive Andromache among her massive bodyguards. It was like trying to find a small toad among a pile of rocks, you had to either get the rocks out the way first or bait the toad out. For the time being, Nyranda kept plucking out rocks in her hunt as she tried to think of a way to get the Empress to come to her.

Nyranda’s thoughts were interrupted when one of the bestial ents below her exploded in a storm of splinters and shredded vines - that was not unexpected. The Golot Vanguard were mighty beyond reckoning, and each of their blows shattered bark and sent wood flying in any case. What made this one ent’s death stand out was that Nyranda could not see the Golot that had dealt the killing blow.


She had found her target.

Enzar meanwhile was fighting an enemy far less soaked in legend, yet to him it was still a life or death situation. The Golot that he and Lestarn had engaged had survived the ent mage’s attempt to sneak lethal vines past its armor and had raised its massive flanged mace to strike Lastern as the ent stumbled forward awkwardly. The two had not become leaders of the border forest by going down to the first enemy the faced however, nor were their titles undeserved. They were not Nyranda, but they were still powerful. As Lastern stumbled he learned of the impending blow through the Dreaming from Enzar and raised his other arm as if to block the incoming blow. Enzar meanwhile drew his sword, a gleaming noble weapon he had taken from the Shenran hero Sir Glenway 50 years ago, and ran along the ent’s raised arm, and with a slash during which the sword glowed a dazzling sapphire blue, decapitated the Golot’s mace before it struck his friend. Its energy expended, the blade lost some of its luster: it would take some time for such a feat to be possible once more.

And then, for some curious reason, Enzar’s world started spinning, and his whole body went numb. The sounds of the surrounding battle faded - and then he hit the ground, seeing Lastarn stumble back yet again as the Golot had followed its mace strike by bashing at both Enzar and the Ent with its massive shield, sending the former flying off of Lastarn’s arm. Even as he watched, the Golot raised the severed haft of its mace - now tipped by a clean diagonal cut that gave it a prominently spiked end - to run the steadfast ent through. As Enzar was helped to his feet by one of his subordinates Lastarn brought up his hands to shield his face, additional vines coiling around them as he prepared another spell using the Dreaming. When the blow came down, the impromptu spear severing though one of the ents hands before becoming stuck there. The Golot viciously wrenched the implement downwards, trying to force Lastarn to stumble or fall once more, but the ent had learned, and his roots hand creeped into the earth, anchoring him there to help him fight against the Golot’s mutant strength. As the Golot dragged his pinned hand to and fro the ent finished his spell, causing a collection of vines on his shoulder to form a small scorpion like creature that hurled itself at the Golot’s shield, clambering over it and then leaping at the monsters helmet to try and stab it in the eyes with a thorn tipped tail. The strike deflected off the center of the helmet’s visor, but then slid directly into one of the open slits on the side and into the Golot’s left eye. With a guttural roar, the Golot let go of its severed mace haft and crushed the small creature against its own helmet with its now free hand, turning away from Lastarn and flailing wildly with its shield.

Enzar then narrowly avoided being crushed as an ent sent another Golot entirely falling backwards where he had just been standing, the massive warrior quickly starting to get up and turning its immediate attention to Enzar as the ent in question was engaged by yet another of the massive warriors, using its shield to lever itself up. Enzar and his subordinate, a Dryad equipped with far too many knives called Ruzan the Keen, prepared to face the giant together.

Or at least, that was the plan. The Golot glared down balefully at the pair for a single, split moment - before letting out a war cry and then simply charging past them with its shield raised to strike at an ent some distance away. Enzar and Ruzan both leaped to the side, but the knife wielder was too slow and had further to go, and was as a result smashed into by the accelerating Golot and sent spinning into the mud.

Enzar had no time to worry over his fallen defender however - At that moment, everything exploded. Or rather, everything in a twenty meter radius of where Nyrand’ thought Andromache was exploded. She and the mages she bore laid into the radius with fury they had been holding back during the stone picking phase of their hunt. The toad had been found, time to clear out the surrounding rocks - and if some of those rocks happened to be dryads or ents, so be it. Almost any cost was worth it to drive a stake through the Heart of Matathran. Nyrand herself whipped up wind blades and mini hurricanes with great flaps of her may wings, the mages bombarded the Golots with iclces large as man, sinkholes open up and swallowed beast and treekin alike, high-pressure jets of water sliced across the area, lightning that burned lifeforce rather than flesh or bark struck indiscriminately, swords sized thorns that could pierce through metal rained down, several fighters were thrown a hundred meters into the air by a geyser of boiling water erupting at their feet, concentrated bone shattering shockwaves ripped down from the sky, beams of light descending from heaven burned away all biological material, small ball bearing sized stones rained from the sky, shattering armor and bark alike and cratering into the ground with cataclysmic force. While Yaval had tried to move its forces out of the way, there had been little time available and so all had burned equally before the power of the primordials’ legacy.

Just as the barrage of spells Nyranda and the mages riding them ceased, three ballista bolts trailing long cords cleaved through the air. Two missed entirely, although they then fell, entangling Nyranda’s wings in their cable - and the third struck them directly in the side. While the massive flying ent had drifted in place to give themselves and the mages the necessary stability to rain their magic down, siege operators in the North army had been confident enough to fire at them with ballista.

A great tug rippled along the length of all three cables. Nyranda’s form buckled, causing the siege engines themselves to shatter from the backlash of force - but it was too late. With their focus sundered, their wings entangled, and the force tugging them earthwards, the mighty wyrm fell from the sky into the large clearing they had just created below.

For several moments, the area was filled with dust and ash, so thick and voluminous none could see inside. Stunned and dazzled Golots, Dryads, and Ents that had been at the fringes of the area and thrown down to the ground from the force slowly rose. The fighting all around had briefly ceased and, as one, the forest defenders and the Empress’ vanguard stared expectantly into the clearing as the haze finally began to part and lift.

Only two things remained in the shattered circle of land. At one end, Nyranda, still partly entangled in ballista cable, rested prone - their horizon one of burning trees and skyward drifting embers. At the other, multiple monolithic spires of stone clenched together like a clawed fist.

One of the spires trembled, tipped, and with a hesitant hanging quiver, finally toppled.
Andromache, her mithril plate armor covered in dirt and grime but otherwise seemingly unscathed, strode out of the earthen tomb, her half-cape billowing behind her, shield and gleaming starlit mace in hand.

Silence filled the air, the surrounding combatants simply looking on with awe as all their gazes shifted from the Empress to the fallen form of Nyranda. The many mages staggered across the ground away from the clearing, exhausted from the power they had exerted that had brought may to the brink of mindlessness.

More than anything, Yaval’s exasperation filled the dreaming. Her mind burning with shame, Nyranda tried to ascend, but her wings where ensnared and broken by the fall. Even if she used the last of her magic to cut the cords, she was grounded. Yet her quarry was right there, in the open. She still had a chance to prove herself, prove that her unique form was a future the Dreaming Forest could adopt as a fifth subspecies. Without a word or roar Nyranda charged, her arms dragging her forwards, her root made tail snaking serpentine. The mighty drake plunged recklessly towards Andromache, for surely, she was only human and what could a human do to a child of the gods?

Andromache simply raised her mace, imbued with the essence of starlight, and Nyranda was charging blind - the dreaming itself was no use, all of the onlookers who had been watching had also had their vision filled with dazzling light. Nyranda crashed through the chamber of stone spires Andromache had emerged from, but her quarry had clearly evaded her - and might counterattack at any moment…!

The Drake was briefly dazed by the combined starlight and subsequent impact, having little sense in her other than to flail wildly with her broken wings and uncoiled roots, kicking up dirt and dust. She hope that the empress was either equally blinded by the light and that she might strike her quarry by sheer chance.

Nyranda’s tail struck something hard and metallic, and for that moment it seemed like her desperate flailing had paid off - and then, a tremendous impact tore into the base of her tail where it joined her body. It was more than a mere physical impact - the strike burned, albeit not in the way fire did. Rather than wisps and portions of her body slowly being wicked away by flame, she could feel large chunks of the struck area simply dying and seemingly turning to lead.

Just as the sensation of the impact faded, the blinding light finally faded from Nyranda’s senses, leaving her staring at the crowd of onlookers before her, still recovering from the light themselves.

There was no pain, only a place in her body where mana no longer followed. With her forelimbs she hurled herself away from the the wicked blow using her smaller wings and a gripping claw to redirect the momentum as she landed, pivoting on one arm so that her bulk drafted round to face her foe. Andromache stood tall, her starlit mace still gleaming in one hand and her mithril shield in the other, stalking forward like some predator. Nyranda was momentarily reminded of another forest saying.

The mantis does not go hunting for toads.

The moment passed though, and now Nyranda could clearly see her foe - who, despite being armed with starlight, was still but a human. Without blinding Nyranda, how could she hope to fight?

Still. Her weapon burned life away. Nyranda could not hope to fight as she wished, with tooth and nail. Fortunately, they stood in a graveyard. As the empress approached Nyranda armed herself with the weapons of her honor guard, a great shield was torn from the grip of a fallen Golot, a mace tipped with amber bound in iron chains from an ent. The armaments were too small for her from, the Kite shield was wielded upside down, it’s point skywards, its flat top slammed to the ground supporting her weight, while the normally two handed mace was wielded as the Golot used their own, single handedly. With her damaged tail and arms used for weaponry, she had sacrificed mobility for defence, yet she believed she could still maneuver enough if Andromache came to her - which the human Warlord did, not even having paused in stride as Nyranda armed herself with the armaments of the Empress’ fallen vanguard. She strode right into Nyranda’s superior reach without even breaking into a run.

This. This was a trap. Surely. And yet what else could she do but take the bait. The wooden drake cocked her head in confusion at her foe’s audacity and then brought her mace down with a swift motion, the amber head of the mace glowing golden as it descended. Andromache merely turned her body to the side - not even attempting to leap away from the overhand strike. The motion was precise beyond fathoming, as the mace slammed into the ground only scant centimeters away from her - and the human woman did not even seem unbalanced from the seismic shockwaves sent out from the force of the blow.

Then, with a motion of ease, Andromache swept her starlight mace in front of her, striking at Nyranda’s fingertips. Bark and wood shattered from the impact, and once again Nyranda felt the burning sensation - but also saw the effect firsthand. The stuff of her wood was being transmuted by the weapon, what had not been shattered or rent outright turned into actual, cold, dead leaden stone by the strike. As she pulled her now petrified hand back the finger that had been struck crumbled away from the weapon she was now forced to hold in a much more unwieldy grasp - and it did not look as though Andromache would give her any time to recover or plan, as the warlord was once again striding forth, advancing dangerously close to the shield Nyranda held in front of herself. In response Nyranda shoved the shield towards her, plowing the earth and creating a wave of dust and muck that erupted around her - and so Nyranda saw that Andromache was still standing upright, pressing her own shield of mithril against Nyranda’s massive, stolen kite shield - and had raised her mace. The warlord struck, and the kite shield crumpled under the blow before the metal gave way and was rent into a gaping hole in the shield with jagged edges that then faded and turned to lead. The shock from the impact sent the shield back, flinging yet even more dirt and earth into the air as a shockwave of force rippled up Nyranda’s arm.

The force was simply beyond what a warrior of Andromache’s size should have been capable of - the starlit mace she wielded was mighty, surely, but even with it there was no way this mortal, human woman could be striking with such might. It was unthinkable, maddening, horrifying. What was she? Vampyre? Lung Dragon? Whatever she was, the fake dragon backed away from the force of nature she had foolishly thought her inferior, broken kite shield abandoned, stone hand and mace used to propel her away until she ran out of room and was reminded of the onlookers. They stood. Staring. She wanted to scream, to rage that they simply stood there, but madness seemed to grip them all and she had no lungs for words. THe madness gripped her too now. She charged again, blinded by rage this time rather than starlight, jaws lunging for the Empress.

Andromache planted her feet, dropped her shield, grasped her starlit mace in both hands, and brought the weapon down in a cruel overhanded strike directly on top of Nyranda’s snout just as the draconian ent came into range - but even so, the strike could not actually stop the momentum of Nyranda’s charge, and Andromache was barreled over and driven into the ground as the ent, unable to snap her jaws at the warlord having had them forced shut from the impact, simply plowed over her. For Nyranda,the world was now dark, the petrification had spread from her jaws to her eyes, the glowing light therein snuffed out, and she did not know if she had succeeded or failed, and so she raged once more, limbs blindly smashing, wings flapping, roots grasping. Then the darkness began to spread. The numbness blossomed over her body, her mind, her mana was pushed back into a slowly constricting claustrophobic space until after what felt like an of torture eternity, there was simply not enough space left to house her. The constant fluctuation pattern of her mind was broken. The primordials gift inside her dimmed and grew silent.

In the center of the clearing, Andromache slowly emerged from the dust cloud kicked up by the raging ent, her helmet missing and her gorget askew from the force of Nyranda’s strike. Long vines of dark red hair had spilled from the confines of her armor, billowing in the wind of the battlefield even caked with filth as they were. She stood over Nyranda’s form, having risen from the earth after having been run over by the massive ent and fallen upon Nyranda with a series of vicious blows that had driven the life from her.

Enzar looked on and saw the truth of what had happened. The human - no, whatever it was Andromache was - she did not resemble a woman in her seventies. Here was a warrior still in the golden years of their youth, no older than their early thirties - and their eyes -

Their eyes were filled with a terrible light that went far beyond malice. Therein was a light that shone the law of will, the same light seen at the source of the dreaming within the great Yaval. For the first time, the Dreaming Forest believed in something greater than themselves. But…

He tore his eyes away from the warlord, looking instead to Nyranda’s prone form. She was wooden no-longer and instead now she stood a statue, a monument to Andromache’s power frozen forever in a recoiling, twisted image of fear. Her light was gone from the Dreaming, there was nothing left inside that shell of stone that could be called a person. She had been one of the strongest. What could the rest of them possibly hope to achieve against her. Yet, their progenitors where in danger. They had to try. He raised the Glenway blade to the sky and screamed.


Enzar ran forwards, the glowing blue blade held in both hands, expecting an army at his back. Yet none came. They were all still locked in place. The sculpted Dryad rushed on, a fool to believe that maybe a man could succeed where a monster had failed.

As he neared Andromache, she turned to face him, her expression flat, her burning eyes narrowed with distaste. She did not move - and as he came in and swung the blade of Glenway, she raised her left hand and caught his arm by the wrist. With a twist and an immeasurable burst of pain, the two meter tall Enzar was forced to his knees, his legendary blade falling into the mud beside him.

“What is your name.” The words were invoked, not truly an inquiry but possessing a terrible exigency to them. Andromache stared down at Enzar with a gaze that went through him, as though she were speaking with an object.

He stared up at her, but could not meet her eyes, for the light burned brighter than starlight. For the first time he had to force conviction and calm into his voice. “L… Enzar.” his title felt insignificant before her, like something only a child would be proud of.

Andromache raised her gaze, her eyes sweeping briefly across the gathered onlookers.

“There will be no quarter.” She said simply.

Where Enzar’s own cry to charge had been ignored, this prompted a slow response. One by one, the combatants started to glance nervously at one another - some began to reach for their weapons or mutter the beginnings of incantations - and then a roar broke out from one of the Golots, and all around Andromache and Enzar, the battle resumed. Then she turned her gaze back to him.

“Someone must live. You will go. You will recount all you have seen. It will be known that until the coast has been seized, there will be no quarter.”

The words spoken, she released her grip on his wrist, letting him fall to the mud beside the blade of Glenway. Andromache turned away from him and went to rejoin the fray.

“Go.” Her words carried through the desolation between them - and then she was gone, simply another combatant amongst the chaotic melee around him.

It was pointless. Yet she would not be disobeyed. Yaval had seen it all through his eyes. Yet she could not be disobeyed. His duty as leader, chosen by these warriors, compelled him to stay. Yet she could not be disobeyed. With a numbness, Enzar collected the sword, turned, and walked back towards the forest. He did not turn for the cries of his soldiers, nor when Siphons in the north detonated, spilling fire across the frontlines and preventing the dryads clashing with the Cosmogone infantry from fleeing, nor for when the harpies, led by the young Queen, descended, screaming as they enveloped all that remained in a rear charge. Five minutes after he had left it Enzar set foot back in the shade of the forest, blade in one hand, Ruzan over his shoulder.

“Soon this will all be ash”


Xuna sat behind the Matatharan lines where she had been ordered to sit. Her part had not yet come, and she could see it never would. The Dreaming was distant, soft and hazy, yet even here she could feel the emotions running through it. Fear. horror. Panic. It was over. The bird accompanying them thought otherwise however. In a voice filled with all the emotions of the Dreaming, it wittred. “You have to go, now! Stop the artillery! Throw everything a it!”


“No? No! I speak for Yaval! Their will will be done for they are oldest, wisest and SQUAWK”

Xuna, with lightning speed, grabbed the neck of the bird and squeezed it tight.

“If they are so wise why did they let Andromache just sit on the border for months, let her sally on up to our doorstep and set up her warmachines, thinking that they could kill her so easily!”

The bird flailed helplessly in her grasp, week grasps and swaks of protest emerging from its beak. One word was clear however. “Dreamless.”

At this word she wrenched her hand to the side, the bird emitting a finally cry that was quickly silenced. The bird fell to the ground limply as she turned away from the fire consuming the forest. “Let’s go” she told Yarvost, who silently as ever, compiled. As the two walked back the way they had came Xuna unstrung her bow, the real disappointment of the day was not being able to use it, and then the two of them touched their hands to their matching masks, their forms being replaced by a Golot escorting an old familiar figure. They left behind no trace of their presence but the bird’s broken collar.


In the end the forest burned. Attempts were made to halt it made up of the refuse of the original plan. A burning lake of blood a hundred meters short of the trenchline was all that remained of Saberath the Mad’s charge of hydras through the inferno itself. The shattered wreckages of four massive shields the size of castle walls marked the place where the colosi had fallen to either side of the pool. Corpses of sprouting berzerkers littered the ground, the trees’ final, desperate bid for survival annihilated like all the rest. The treekin fought almost to their last, unlike Xuna, they could not abandon their home and progenitors to their fate. Only a few mages and stragglers survived, Yaval ordering them to flee east before their linking branch burned along with the rest of Cher. The forest, from the Southern tip to a river that crossed the forest just before the fortress of Merken, was now ash. Trees that survived thanks to their individual efforts, standing alone in the sea of cinders, were rewarded with the woodsman's axe. When Merken itself was attacked a few days later their magical defense backfired, and now the fortress stood silent, frozen a hundred meters below the surface of a perfect sphere of ice that regrew no matter what was done to it.

The border forest was no more.

The way to Emway was clear.
A collab by @Goldeagle1221 & @Terminal.

The Kingdom of Lynnfaire


County of Pralean, by the Jannerton Border
Keep Pralean


In the early morning dim, with the firelight of hundreds of campfires in the plains below still glowing like embers in an iron pan, three shrouded figures in cloaks crested the ridge of a cliff neighboring the Keep of Pralean, around which rested the victorious and carousing forces of Duke William following the battle near the border of Qirdle. They all paused for a moment to compose themselves after a long climb, and take in the sight of the massive keep. It was not the first Lynnfairish fortification they had seen on their journey, but it was certainly the largest they had seen thus far.

"Now that's a touch more familiar." Muttered Sanoran, the last of the Calid Scouts to peer over the ridge. "Style is different, but I could almost pretend I was back home in Telum."

"Yes, the plains here are similar as well. Only thing missing is the mountain range." Replied Carran. "It is a damned more welcome sight than the rest of this miserable place. It reminds me too much of the Aeolian Fields. I kept waiting to hear some errant melody on the breeze the whole way here."

"Enough of your rambling," The small squad's leader, Patte, cut Carran off. "The Grand Marshall will be here with some of the cavalry soon, and this will be easier if we move in while we still have the cover of dark."

"This is so unnecessary. If it were anyone else we wouldn't have to bother with all this cloak and dagger nonsense. Even Guiomar would not bother sneaking in just to impress some noble fop." Carran complained. "At least let me be the one to stay here? I had last watch during our respite earlier."

"It's your loss. It may be a pain, but Mountebank tends to be generous with those who can support his vainglorious endeavors." Patte commented idly as he took in the arrangement of the campsites below. "Besides, it is not like we are breaking into the keep itself. Just going in...there, I think. That large tent by the pallisades in front of the portcullis, the one with the large standard." He gestured and guided Sanoran's gaze to the indicated dwelling, a canvas affair of white cloth with blue stripes.

Patte and Sanoran quickly divested themselves of their clay pots and treated tinder. If they were caught, it would be best if it did not appear they had been planning on firestarting - something which the Lynnfairish soldiery below would be familiar with and know to look out for. They then quickly descended the rocky ridge, and arriving at its base, began to advance in an alternating pattern, slinking through the low grasses, slipping between the odd patrol around the camp perimeters without great difficulty. Having made their way into the camp, they regrouped and then simply began to walk, in plain view, through the maze of tents, approaching their goal. Patte retrieved a courier's scroll-case and visibly wore it across his left shoulder. They made no attempt to hide themselves - they were not assassins or thieves skilled in infiltration - but they stayed to the side of each lane and made a point of not striding too close to any of the resting soldiery.

Just as dawn broke across the horizon, they arrived at the tent in question and were challenged by the guards on-duty.

"We are couriers of the third harbinger cohort of Calid Scout and Outriders, led by Grand Marshal Tribal Mountebank in service to the Empress Andromache of Matathran." Patte announced. "We come bearing a message for Duke William..." Patte paused briefly, as though hesitating over the pronunciation of the Duke's full name, thought better of it, and skipped ahead. "...of Drouschester." He finished.

One of the gruff looking guards nodded and disappeared into the tent. The other guards simply nodded in awknowledgement. After a few seconds the first guard re-appeared from the flaps of the tent.

"Give Sir Wynton a moment, you've caught him as he was waking," The guard stated. A few seconds passed and a deep voice called from inside, "let them in."

Without much fuss the guards pulled the flaps of the tent open for Patte, "go on."

Inside the tent the smell of recently struck sulfur and pitch stunk up the room. Twin torches lit the tent, aiding what light soaked through the white stripes of the surrounding canvas. A carpet was laid out over the grass, and a plump well blanketed cot squatted in one corner of the tent, while light easily moved furnature cluttered the rest. A well shaven man in his forties stood before the group, his own stature rather large and broad, and his hair scraggily like that of a farmer. He wore nicely woven clothes streaked with modest color, but otherwise came across as humble. He outstretched a hand, a tiny signet ring on his right, clear scars running up his fingers.

"Sir Wynton of Drouschester," he stated simply, his voice guttoral.

"We have a message for Duke William from Grand Marshal Tribal Mountebank." Patte replied curtly. "He should have received a missive some time ago telling him of our arrival. I suppose I should also inform you the remainder of our cohort will be arriving shortly, some five-hundred of us altogether, footmen and cavalry." He made no movement to return Wynton's proferred hand, nor to retrieve the contents of the scroll-case he carried - apparently the message was intended for the Duke personally. Patte was not familiar with the intricacies of noble etiquette, and not being highborn himself had no desire to try and return any of their sentiment.

Sir Wynton receded his hand and nodded, "Aye, they will be welcome in the perimeter camps, but my advice would be to not mingle with the fresh recruits around here. As for the message, I do remember being told about the coming of Mountebank. I'll call the gate up for you, one of the guards here will escort you the rest of the way."

Wynton nodded and walked past the two Calids, poking his head out of the tent. After a second of throwing orders, he slid back into the tent, "and you lads are all set. Be there anything else?"

A stray breeze danced through the open tent-flap from behind Wynton, causing the nearby brazier to gutter out abruptly. Both Patte and Sanoran started at the occurence, but regained their composure quickly - and with shared scowls of irritation on their faces, just in time for Wynton to see them as he turned back to them. "No, I suppose not." Patte replied flatly, managing to wipe the grimace from his face. "Fair day to you."

Wynton nodded, curiousity raising one of his brows, but he left it wanting. As the pair left the tent they quickly were guided by their escort to the gate house. The walls of the keep shot up into a dizzying height, and a slight curve was found near the foot, promising the intricacies of Lynnfairish archetecture. Without a shout or call the gate doors creaked open, loud clanking chains guiding a mechannism out of sight. The group passed through the gates, under a deep biting iron gate that hung above, waiting for the command to shut down the gate at a moments notice. Slits lined the corridor, and death holes were visible above. Past the house the group found themselves in a decievingly pleasant courtyard of tiny flowers and flat granite. Walls boxed the courtyard and another gate guarded the exit.

"Quite pleasant for a mud-room. I suppose this place was also intended to be a palace perhaps." Sanoran commented. "Adequate, I suppose. The architecture here is quite fair."

"Yes, now if only it did anything to keep the wind at bay." Patte commented, a deadpan expression on his face as a random gust ruined several of the delicate flowers in the courtyard by tearing their petals away.

"I think you'll find the wind along with other things tend to collect in this courtyard," The guard commented idly. Without much more explanation the guard lead the Calids through the other gatehouse, and then through many suddenly cramping and widening walk ways and courts, each with a different function and a different type of person idling around or working hard. The Keepyard itself was spacious enough, but dominated by sharp angles and at the center of it all stood a mighty keep, doors wide open with random inhabitants mustering around or cruising in or out on some sort of duty. Some people wore rich clothes, others not quite, while some further still wore reflecting armors of different forms. Horses could be heard whinneying in all directions - and as the trio passed by, several of the horses became unsettled by an unexpected current that ran through the grounds, prompting the stablemen to swear and tend to them. Both of the Calid scouts scowled yet again, Sanoran grumbling under his breath about some kind of indignity.

The guard raised a brow and kept walking. A few steps more, and the trio found themselves in the foyer of the grand keep, the ostentatious decor not lacking. The absence of dust or markings on the walls suggesting a lot of the decorations to be new, or there for a very specific purpose. The guard handed the pair off to the care of a well dressed and elderly knight, who answered to Sir Thompson.

"Forgive us if our etiquette is lacking. There is no formal knighthood in Matathran." Sanoran provided cordially.

"It's fine," Sir Thompson assured them, "for me anyway, not that I have any pointers for anyone else." He paused a moment as he began walking the pair through the keep, "but pray tell, was there ever knighthood in the lands that Matathran now covers?"

"Oh yes, I believe so. That was before our time understand," Patte replied, "But the Eastern and Southern kingdoms both had multiple orders of knights. Also, while there are no formal knighthoods in Matathran, there are several...knight errants, if you will. Rogue warriors who still haunt the vale in places. The most infamous would be the Knight of Fugue. Whether you might have called him a true knight is another matter though."

"Fair enough," Sir Thompson nodded as he stopped by a well laquered oaken door. He pulled on the copper handle and he heavy door swung open, "after you."

The room inside was large, with very little of the stonework visible past lavish shelves and well stiched tapestries. As the pair entered, a draft blew through the room. "This is just obnoxious." Sanoran complained under his breath. "Quiet. he might hear you." Patte replied back with a whisper. Duke William stood up from a foreign looking chair, sets of armor on either side of him and a sword on his hip. A low sitting table spanned a good portion of the room, with other chairs crowded around it, those who were sitting in them quickly shuffling past the pair and exiting the room, without much of a glance from most.

"Duke William of Drouschester, I presume?" Patte inquired. Sanoran prooded him in the side from behind, prompting a quick if lacking bow from the scouts. "We are couriers of the third harbinger cohort of Calid scouts and outriders, led by Grand Marshal Tribal Mountebank. Prithee, did you receive a missive informing you of his impending arrival?"

The door loudly closed, leaving the scouts alone with the Duke. William suddenly smiled, his eyes following the shallow bows, "but of course," he answered, to which question it was unclear, "have you word?"

"Of course." Patte replied, retrieving the scroll case from his shoulder, taking a moment to pull off the cap and shake out the parchment within. He took another few moments to reorient himself, reslinging the case across his shoulder, flipping the scroll itself over twice to ensure it was facing the right way, and finally broke the wax seal and unscrolled it. With a brief sigh of exasperation, he glanced at the contents and read them aloud.

"Now announcing the arrival of Imperial Officer and Grand Marshal of the Imperial Administration of Matathran under her Empress Andromache, Tribal Mountebank."

He lowered the parchment, a neutral expression on his face. William stared at the scout, "did you want me to clap?"

The Duke made a face, as if thinking, "although I do appreciate your prose; however, you almost sound laboured with the words themselves."

"It is not the first time he has had to speak them." Came an easy and smooth voice from behind William, the sound of serpent scales sliding through grass.

William's left hand visibly clenched and he closed his eyes for a brief moment. He tilted his head and turned to face the voice. Sitting in the same chair William himself had occupied not moments before sat a tall man with skin the color of ash, his face sallow and tall with prominent cheekbones, adorned with long black hair tied back in a tail behind him. He wore a fine if plain silk tunic and trousers, both rather loose, the tunic's drawstrings undone and showing a fair amount of the man's bare chest - which were eerily devoid of nipples, and accentuated by collarbones of unusual proportionment. Laying on the low-table in front of the man was a long broadsword, still sheathed, having been placed there without as much as a whisper, while leaning against the side of the chair was a sheathed, curved blade of some foreign make that William did not recognize, as well as a more familiar cavalry saber.

The man gave him a haunting smile with teeth that were like tombstones, meeting his gaze with orange eyes.

"Thank you for your service, that will be all." He waved a hand, and William heard both of the Calid scouts retreating hurriedly from the room behind him - the door out closing with a hastened thud.

William stared at the man for a moment before a small laugh broke his silence, "well, I have to admit I wasn't expecting such a show."

"Oh, this was no show. It was quite subdued for me, really. Under normal circumstances I would have started by burning this dreary little pile of stones to the ground." The ashen man treated William to a haunting laugh as he rose from the chair, making no move to retrieve his weapons as he began to approach William with slow, deliberate steps. He was of average height all in all, but there was something profoundly wrong with his limbs - his arms both fell down seemingly to his knees when held freely, and his feet - which William noticed were bare - made a distinctive clicking noise on the tiled floor with each footfall.

"But alas, I think you will find yourself pleased to know that I save the true spectacle only for those who would be my foe."

William made an awknowleding face and leaned casually against the wall, "I have to say though, I don't have many people sprouting from the wind out of nowhere coming to see me. Forgive me if I'm not quite sure what to make of it."

"Why, you should be rejoicing! At a time like this, on the day after your stunning victory, and the finest and most unfettered of Matathran's Grand Marshals has come to render you their meager assistance." Tribal stopped at the end of the low table. "Your fortunes are riding high, I should say, and so if you would have my advice - what you should make of this, is to decide how best I might assist you in your...quaint dispute." His mouth, now resting, seemed to be perpetually slanted in a smirk of habit.

William smiled, but it hinted at something more grave, "I wish I shared your enthusiasm."

He looked at the floor for a moment, his brow furrowing in thought, "I'm sure you're quite caught up on the local news."

"Somewhat. My men managed to intercept a few couriers here and there. For a moment we almost did not arrive here, as we thought you were headed to Halmston." Tribal's inhumanly long arms settled together in an arched fold. "My information is a day old or so."

William nodded, not breaking his thoughtful stare. After a moment he looked back up, meeting Tribal's gaze, an energy behind his eyes, and his brow still troubled, "I fear that this is far from over. Rylea will fall."

"Perhaps. I heard the Duke had been either slain, grievously injured, or captured. I admit, its importance to you eludes me."

William narrowed his eyes, "if you will grant me one pardon, I wish to ask a question before we continue."

"I only killed four peasants on the journey here. They were most unaccomodating." Tribal answered promptly. He smile would have been warm on any other person's face.

William shrugged his shoulder and launched himself back to his feet. He brought a hand to his chin and turned away in thought, "I am not sure." He simply said, "I had figured." He turned to look at Tribal, "well quite frankly my hopes were high when you managed to surprise me with your magical visit, but your admittance to random murders lowers my hopes in that you are the saving grace I was looking for."

"I was without direction to the contrary, between my Empress and you. Now that I am here, your word is my holy, of course, where it might contradict those of my Empress. Wield me with care and I will show you grace." Tribal seemed untroubled by William's reticence, still giving him the same easy, ghastly smile.

William tapped his chin, "then perhaps you could be what I need. How far can the winds take you?"

"As fast as wind might travel, wherever it is wind can flow. Though know, I will not be your assassin. Such boorish means are beneath me." Tribal sniffed petulantly. "Though if you would send me afar for some other purpose, I shall endeavor to accomodate it."

"Then we get back to my question I had wished ti asked earlier," William sighed as he made his way back to his chair, turning to sit in it, disregarding the weapons cluttered by it.

"There is much at stake with what I would discuss with you, and I must know this: how is it that I am suppose to trust you with what task I have sheathed," William lookd over to his guest.

"You cannot trust me whatsoever, save for my loyalty to my Empress. She has dictated I am to serve you and your ends. I shall do so, without fail or breach...until she directs me otherwise. You may entrust me with any task to the extent you know I have not received instruction to betray you." Tribal gave William another broad smile, chuckling faintly.

William's eyes dimmed and he gave a silent yet accepting nod of his head, "I cannot hold you responsible for your honesty. I will cede that I do not think you are up to the tasks that I need done, however, as you see... I need someone I can trust. Information is as sharp as a sword you see, and I'd rather keep that on my hip, or on those I trust."

Tribal shrugged, his face returning again to his normal smirk. "It is not my duty to contemplate your misgivings, merely to follow your direction. If you would not trust me with one task, assign me with another. To worry over the matter is a fruitless and tiresome endeavor."

"Oh no, I agree," William smiled, "but I run a tight ship, so they say." He looked off to the side, "by chance of the word, have you ever sailed?"

For the first time during their conversation, Tribal looked away from the duke, a look of contemplation creasing his brow. The habitual smirk at the corner of his mouth flattened, for but a moment.

"Once. Though not on the seas." He said eventually, before his smirk returned and he reoriented his gaze to William. "Though I am not adverse to travel by water."

"Ah! Very good then," William whipped a bell seemingly out of thin air and rang it loudly. The door creaked open and a bald headed man rushed in, "Sir?"

"Elizabeth," William ordered and the man quickly retreated, the door shutting surprisingly gingerly.

"Then boat you shall take," William seemed to pick up on a sentence he had yet to begin, "not my boat; however, but a boat none the less."

As his sentence finished, the door creaked open once more and a younger looking woman stepped in. She by Lynnfairish standards was considered attractive, with slightly curled mahogony hair and a light color to her skin, but her attire was that of a rogue, boiled and hardened leather, fit for urchin.

Elizabeth stood almost at attention, "my Duke?" Her voice was surprisingly well used, and not quite as gentle as her face.

The Duke simply pulled tiny parchment from his pocket and held it out for her. The woman politely took it from his hands and scanned it, her brow clearly confused.

"Which boats are these?" She asked.

"Remember Fourthsday?" The Duke hinted and Elizabeth's eyes lit up, "of course."

"Good," William lifted a hand to gesture at Tribal, "mister Mountebank here will be chaperoning, and doing the bloody work. He is not to be trusted, however-"

"Indeed. Do not trust me at all. I cannot promise you would live to regret it." Still standing by the end of the low table, Tribal's eyes had been affixed upon Elizabeath from the moment she has entered the room, an evident hunger in his eyes.

Elizabeth looked to the Duke and he simply pumped his eyebrows. Looking back at Elizabeth, what could have been fear spilled from her face, a small blue tendril of mist leaking from the corner of her mouth.

"Mountebank," William called, his stare returning to the man, "I hope you won't be opposed to some mindless, yet very discrete killing enmasse of the enemy."

Tribal finally tore his gaze from Elizabeth, his smile widening. "My very favorite thing to do - ah. You did say discrete and enmasse. Would you care to elaborate?"

"Now now," William wagged a finger, "I can't trust you remember? All you must know is that you are to follow Elizabeth and kill when she says."

"That is reassuring enough. I shall be as discrete as her own judgment and temperament allows then." Tribal said in a manner suggesting such discretion would not. "Though I must inquire, to what end might the cohort itself be of use to you? They have traveled some way."

"They certainly have," William shot out of his chair, "and don't you think I haven't noticed. I too had been pondering on what end should they be used. I have concluded that you shall take either none of them with you and send the rest home after proper welcome and rest, or leave them under my command while you are accompanying Elizabeth."

"A young woman should not travel unaccompanied with only the wind at her back. Somebody like me might take advantage of her." Tribal said easily. "Perhaps one or two of them might accompany her - the rest are yours to command. Know that although their lives mean little to me, I must answer to my Empress - and she will be...most wroth should they all perish to a man in some suicidal manuever."

William smiled and turned to Elizabeth, "you know the task and I trust your judgment."

"Fifteen," Elizabeth said without much thought, "I will need fifteen of them, this isn't a small boat."

"As seamen or as combatants? There are no harbors in Matathran little ewe. These men are not sailors." Tribal said, turning his head to her. His expression was curiously neutral, though his eyes were alight with wanton intent.

"Both," Elizabeth answered, her eyes narrowing on Tribal, "we can't have dead weight, I can show them the ropes on the spot, but if they are going to be following, I want fifteen. The ship in question should be easy, recently redone. It'll cut the water with little need from them."

Tribal shrugged. "I trust you know your business that I am not to be trusted with. You shall have fifteen, though I doubt you will have need of their blades."

"Good," Elizabeth simply said, her stare unwavering. William sat back in his chair, "well would you look at that, everything has worked out -- for now at least." He grinned at Tribal, "am I right?"

"For now. We should hope for some time to come." Tribal agreed knowingly. "Are we to depart immediately?"

William shook his head, "I need to make sure the boats are where they need to be by time you get there first, you will leave in the morning. That will give my agents enough time to tidy the place for you."

"Well enough then. Until then - direct me to your training yards. The finest blade in Matathran will test the mettle of those gathered there."

William laughed, "I would rather see first if you could find it on your own, so you are dismissed to discover. But remember, though you do not know why or what you are doing for me, know that if any harm were to come to Elizabeth, the boat, or if her words are not followed exactly-- well you can wave goodbye to well... Lynnfaire as you know it."

William tilted his head, "not that I suspect you care personally." Elizabeth visibly flinched, seeming to understand William's insinuation.

"Not particularly." Tribal admitted easily. "Though your implication speaks poorly of your own confidences. Surely you would not entrust a matter I am not to be trusted with concerning the fate of all Lynnfaire to me unless your straights were truly dire." He treated William to another wide, tombstone-toothed smile.

"You would think that," William leaned back in his chair, "but as once said by the finest blade in Matathran, it is not your duty to contemplate my misgivings."

"So he did." Tribal gestured, and one by one, each of his blades flew from their positions and into his hands - the saber he positioned on his right hip, the curious curved foreign blade on his left, and the broadsword across his back. "If that is all, do I have your leave to depart?"

"That you do," William smiled, then turning his head to Elizabeth, "but I would like you to stay a bit longer." He said as Tribal walked to the door, leaving the two to converse in private.

"Oh Empress, the little ewe will be quite the trial to my oaths." He sighed to himself as he opened the door and left.
is it cool if I claim these little islands in the far north-west?

I am afraid you are working with an outdated version of the map (sorry about that). The Northern Islands have been claimed for a few days, but there is a new opening in the mainland if you like. See here:

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