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. "...win 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 Councils...do 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?"
"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.