The five Linowan youths crept through the tall grasses that divided their lands from the redwoods of the Haltans. All five wore traditional war masks, and carried jugs that sloshed with the oils they planned to use to burn down a swath of trees. They did not speak â€“ this was the first Linowan raid since the new High Priest had come to power, and it was critical that it be perfect.
High above, in the trees of the Haltans, Commander Rajas shook his head. Gesturing to one of his companions, he half-turned to his right. â€œYou see, your Majesty? It takes more than a declaration of peace to convince these Linowan dogs â€“ and our people are not much better. If you are serious about enforcing the peace, we will need soldiers along the border.â€
â€œNo.â€ The reply was soft and rich. â€œThe Endless Desert provides. Do you doubt Her will, Commander?â€ The woman known as Wind Daughter, now declared Queen of Halta and High Priest of Linowan, turned her gaze on her commanding guard. In her eyes, he saw an unending field of grey sands that seemed to swirl in time with his heartbeat.
â€œAh â€“ no, of course not, my lady.â€ Commander Rajas had seen what happened to those who doubted the will of the Yozi, and he had no wish to join them. â€œI will send my soldiers down, and thenâ€¦â€
â€œNo.â€ The soldiers, who had started for ropes leading down to near the ground at the border, paused at the soft declaration. â€œWait and watch.â€
Down below, the youths were arriving at the border. The first, losing some caution at the lack of apparent awareness on the part of the Haltans, took a step across the sharp dividing line between grass and forest as he started to unstopper his oil-jugs.
He instantly began to scream, staggering and then collapsing as his skin roiled and bubbled. As the other would-be arsonists watched in horror, small fern spores began to push their way through his skin, and he collapsed to the ground. One of the other warriors, more brave or foolish than his friends, stepped forwards to help him and promptly collapsed screaming as well. The other three stood frozen in shock for a moment, and then turned and fled with one mind, the dying gurgled screams of their companions echoing behind them.
Above, on the trees, the soldiers watched with horror. Wind Daughter smiled gently, the grey tattoos that covered her skin pulsing and shifting in time with the screams below. â€œYou see? There will be no need for soldiers. The peace will be maintained, in the name of Cecelyne.â€ She stood smoothly. â€œBut I thank you for your concerns, Commander. Do not stop bringing them to me.â€ Turning, she walked calmly along the trees. After a half-unconscious glance back to the still-twitching remains of the two interlopers, Rajas swallowed and followed her.
The Graceful Sea slowed to a halt as the unknown ship bore down on her. Standing on deck, Cathak Drogath turned to the captain in annoyance. â€œWhat are you doing! Thatâ€¦ that ship is nearly here!â€
â€œAnd we cannot escape her.â€ The unknown ship was moving against the wind, its sails impossibly full, skimming along over the surface of the waves like a giant skipping stone. Captain Semas had done everything he could think of to shake her, but she kept closing the distance. â€œWe will simply have to stand. Maybe they wonâ€™t seek a fight.â€
â€œWe will see.â€ Drogathâ€™s eyes narrowed, and he watched the ship approach, one hand on his daiklave.
And then it was there, pulling up impossibly close and tight. The deck was swarming with strange creatures, their shapes changing as they sung impossible songs and let out paens of joy. And stepping across was a young man, swathed in dark robes, his cowl covering his face and shrouding it in shadows. He smiled to the deck. â€œGreetings, Captain. You led me on a merry chase.â€
â€œWell, your ship isâ€¦ ahâ€¦â€
â€œMm, yes.â€ The man shrugged. â€œI am Tide Star, the Walking Lord, Conduit of Zuratha. I mean you no harm.â€
Drogathâ€™s eyes narrowed, and he drew his daiklave. â€œYour ship swarms with demons.â€
â€œOf course. I serve the will of the Yozi.â€ Ignoring Drogathâ€™s obvious hostility, Tide Star stepped onto the deck of the Graceful Sea. â€œI am seeking crews to search for me, to be my eyes and ears in the coming days. A great shadow is covering Creation, and Zuratha seeks to save those who would accept him.â€
With a roar of anger, Drogath raised his sword high. â€œWe will never serve the Demon Princes!â€ He charged forwards, bringing his daiklave around in a powerful overhand swing. Without glancing at him, Tide Star reached out with one hand and pulled the daiklave from his hands. With his other hand he grabbed the Terrestrialâ€™s head and squeezed, crushing it like a grape. Tossing Drogathâ€™s corpse overboard, Tide Star continued as though there had been no interruption, letting the daiklave fall to the deck.
â€œI do not seek much; simply your help. Information on where you see children of the Yozi gathering, fighting. And information if you learn anything about the purpose of Zuratha.â€ He reached into the folds of his cloak, bringing out a small pouch, and handed it to the captain. â€œShare this amongst the crew. This will be given to you whenever you find information of value. If you discover news of Zurathaâ€™s lost purpose, the fee will be a hundred times that.â€ Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked back to his ship. The captain opened the pouch, and his jaw dropped. There were beautiful, perfect gemstones inside, a yearâ€™s wages for every man on the ship.
â€œYes, my lord!â€ Survival and greed joined forces in the captainâ€™s mind. â€œWe will do as you ask!â€
â€œGood.â€ Tide Star stopped at the edge of his boat. â€œOh, and let people know how I feel about those who serve me â€“ and those who oppose me.â€ He gestured carelessly towards the sea where he had tossed the Dragon-Blood, and then turned again and stepped on to his boat. In moments, it was speeding away, on to the next merchant shipâ€¦
â€œI must admit, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the army.â€ Rankar VIII, the Despot of Gem, leaned back in his seat with a chuckle and took a sip of tea. â€œBut it was just in the nick of time. Weâ€™re still fighting, but I donâ€™t think any of the Lionâ€™s dead will make it into the streets of Gem.â€
â€œThe cities of the South have to stand together.â€ Taking a sip of his own tea, the Perfect of Paragon smiled and leaned forwards. â€œThe Dead threaten us all equally, and the Realm will provide us with no support.â€
â€œI agree entirely. I will be happy to sign Gem into your alliance, Perfect. Thank you for your help.â€
â€œI couldnâ€™t let this fine city fall. But if youâ€™ll excuse me, Rankar, I must attend to another meeting.â€
â€œOf course, of course. Iâ€™ll go see to the defenses, and consult with you later.â€ Rising, Rankar bowed to the Perfect, before seeing himself out. The Perfect watched him go with a contented smile. It truly was amazing how quickly mortals adapted to these situations.
He let his mind float free, seeking out his compatriots. â€œGem is secure. The First and Forsaken Lionâ€™s armies have been beaten back, and the Lion himself could not do battle.â€
â€œThat is good to hear.â€ The melodic tones of Wind Daughter floated to the Perfectâ€™s ears. â€œHalta and Linowan are under our control now, although one of the Lunars who founded the state fled. I worry about that.â€
â€œNothing you could do.â€ Tide Starâ€™s voice was understanding. â€œOur fleet is growing at a fast rate. The promise of wealth sways all too easily.â€ There was a mixture of satisfaction and sorrow in his voice, which the Perfect could understand. â€œBut there are still only the three of us. Do we have enough power to challenge the other alliances?â€
â€œI fear not.â€ The Perfect glanced around the opulent room. â€œThe other alliances are foolish, but they outnumber us greatly. I fear we may needâ€¦ other allies.â€
â€œOther allies than the Conduits? Who?â€ Tide Star sounded confused.
There was a long pause, and then the Perfect outlined his plan. The silence across the mental link lengthened before Wind Daughter spoke.
â€œYou suggest an abomination.â€
â€œItâ€™s absolutely unthinkable! This is madness!â€ Zurathaâ€™s words were tinged with horror.
â€œThis is Creation.â€ The Perfectâ€™s words were simple. â€œWould you rather see Sacheverall or Malfeas ruling?â€
After a few moments, Tide Star responded grudgingly. â€œNo. If it comes to that, I will back your plan. But let us wait. See if we can win alone, first.â€
â€œVery well. Just donâ€™t take any actions that will render this plan impossible, my friends.â€ Tide Star and Wind Daughter closed their links, and the Perfect sat back in thought. They were right, of course. The allies he proposed were unreliable. Some would call it the greatest treachery imaginable. But he could see no other alternative. He spoke softly. â€œMother, am I doing right?â€
She Who Lives In Her Name filled his mind with confidence. She trusted him, and that was all that mattered. Time would tell if his plan was correct.
Oof, that one was longer than I expected. Only one part left before the Third Age begins...