The city of Gethemane was silent and still in the late afternoon light. General Verselin of the Haslanti Liberation Brigade frowned softly, glancing around the quiet streets. â€œWhere in the name of His Wake are they?â€
It wasnâ€™t just the quiet that permeated the city. That, while disturbing, merely set up a backdrop to the worries that Verselin had lately been feeling. The direction that the Haslanti were taking worried him, and few of those in his army seemed to agree. With Whitewall captured over a month ago, and now Gethemane falling, it seemed that the Haslanti were ready to sweep south straight through Cherak, conquering the northern coast of the Inner Sea one nation at a time. Icewalker attacks had begun, but the combined forces of the new leaders of the League were greater than they could bear, forcing them to fall back. With no secure redoubt to retreat to â€“ Halta was closed to them by the Wind Daughter, and Rubylak under the sway of demonic forces â€“ it seemed that the icewalkers could not long continue.
None of which explained his unease, truthfully. Queen Lani oversaw the eastern front of the war, and when she spoke, it all made sense. The gods had abandoned the Haslanti League; their enemies grew more numerous by the day, and it was only a matter of time until they fell. If the Realm did not destroy them, the icewalkers would. It only made sense to find new masters. But now, leading the advance through the deserted ruins of what had been a proud and powerful city only a few weeks ago, Verselin found his fervour fading.
And it was thus occupied that he failed to note the three additional figures joining his troupe. In the shadows cast by the towers of the city, the sorceries that had covered their bodies, disguising them as Haslanti soldiers, went unremarked. The First Haslanti Liberation Brigade passed by, and they smoothly joined it, glancing at each other as they became simply three more of the several thousand soldiers now sweeping the streets.
Many minutes later, with no engangements marked and the soldiers growing nervous, a scout finally reported, running from one of the temples, his face flush with exertion and worry. â€œSir, itâ€™sâ€¦ astonishing.â€ He shook his head in vague awe. â€œThe tunnelsâ€¦ thousands of people have been through them in the past few hours. Tens of thousands. Sir â€“ theyâ€™ve evacuated the city through the tunnels!â€
Verselin swore softly. â€œThatâ€™s impossible. Those tunnels are morasses. Filled with monsters and trapsâ€¦â€ He bit off a second curse. It was impossible, but it made sense. The Realm had sent two thousand soldiers to Gethemane, where they had found themselves facing a Haslanti army twice their size, supported by demons summoned and bound by Queen Lani. There was no way to hold the city.
â€œItâ€™s not impossible at all, Captain.â€ The voice came softly from an aide, who stepped forwards with a slight shake of his head. â€œItâ€™s a scorched earth policy. There will be nothing in Gethemane to support the Yozi Courts.â€
Soldiers spun in shock at the quiet voice, and the Captain frowned. â€œI donâ€™t know you.â€
â€œNo.â€ The man smiled sadly, the illusions wrapped around him rippling away. â€œI am Tepet Fokuf, ambassador from the Realm. Iâ€™m here to ask you to abandon the Conduit you serve, before she drags you all to Hell.â€
â€œAre you mad?â€ Captain Hannik stepped forwards, raising his staff to point at the stranger â€“ the regent? â€œYou are standing before an army, you fool! You dare to insult our queen and ourselves in the same breath, outnumbered a thousand to one?â€
â€œYour Queen is a monster.â€ A second soldier stepped forwards, and as she spoke the men around her gasped in wonder. Her face was so beautiful that it was a wonder they had not seen her before, and her words resonated with holy power. â€œShe has given her soul to demons, become one with them. Your leaders lead the Haslanti to their doom. If you do not leave this city, you will join them.â€
Hannik laughed, although his laughter was forced in the face of the womanâ€™s glory. â€œTwo against an army is no different then one.â€
â€œOh, I donâ€™t need to fight you myself. I have a secret weapon for that.â€ Fokuf glanced westwards, and many of the soldiers followed his gaze in confusion. â€œOut of curiousity, how far away is your Queen Lani?â€
â€œAs though I would answer you.â€ Verselin shook his head and pointed his sword in a smooth motion. The light of the afternoon seemed to dim as he sighted along it. â€œYou have named yourself traitors to the League. Surrender, or die.â€
â€œSorry, but we really have to run.â€ The woman opened her mouth, and Fokuf cut her off. â€œNow, Amaya!â€ In a single fluid motion, he spun and leapt away. One of the soldiers jumped forwards, grabbing Amaya by the arm as she stepped forwards.
â€œBring her here!â€ Verselin barked the order, then frowned. The sky was growing dark. Behind him, he could hear the Scuttlers howling; combat was engaged. But with whom?
â€œGeneral, you must â€“ ah!â€ The last soldier glanced back at the general, and then to Amaya as she began to speak. Picking her up without a momentâ€™s hesistation, he tensed and, before anyone in the Generalâ€™s party realized they had a third mole in their midst, he jumped.
The jump carried him several dozen yards away in a moment, and he burst into a sprint as he landed, leaping again as the fastest among Verselinâ€™s men began to fire arrows in his wake. But Verselin was distracted by a new problem, turning to watch the shadows pooling around the streetface.
â€œWHERE IS HE?!â€ A Scuttler was thrown across the street, its chitinous body snapping as it hit the wall. The creature groaned softly, and Verselin took a step backwards as the shadows came around the corner, and a woman came with them. â€œWHERE IS FOKUF??â€
â€œGet out of my domain, Empress of nothing.â€ The voice was soft, but filled with menace. For a moment, the shadows pulsed backwards, pushed by the red light that, for a moment, filled the street before them. When it cleared, a small woman stood there, smiling slightly. â€œI know your oath. You may kill no human before him. While my demons are not human, I am.â€
â€œAnd I will chase him, and catch him, and kill him.â€ The Shadow Empress stepped forwards, but Queen Lani did not give ground. â€œGet out of my way, or discover that there are worse things in the world than death.â€
Laniâ€™s fingers came up, the red light of the demon moon Ghroth pooling in her fingertips. â€œAnd miss a chance to destroy one of my enemies? You were foolish enough to deliver yourself to me, Empress. I will take advantage of this.â€
Several blocks away, still running, Fokuf, Amaya, and Tenrek glanced backwards as the first explosions rocked the streets. Tenrek smiled beneath his illusion. â€œIt worked.â€
â€œLooks like.â€ Fokuf grinned. The Empress was forced by her oath to give chase, and could freely fight as long as doing so made her hunt easier â€“ and Ghrothâ€™s Conduit would not pass up the chance they had dropped into her lap. The battle between the two would slow the Haslanti army, perhaps inflict casualties â€“ and it would delay until the second stage of the cityâ€™s sabotage became obvious.
As they reached the Southern walls, Fokuf scaling them in a series of tiny jumps and Tenrek simply taking hold of Amaya and leaping over, the first of Gethemaneâ€™s manses exploded. More followed as they reached the plains. Amaya shook her head softly.
â€œMay the Unconquered Sun guide your passage into your next lives.â€
â€œAt the moment, Iâ€™m more worried about our passage across these plains.â€ Fokuf gestured to the right. â€œWeâ€™ve got company. Skyboat, bearing on us fast.â€ He gritted his teeth. â€œToo fast. Thatâ€™s sorcery-enhanced, at the least.â€
Tenrek gauged distances. â€œItâ€™s gaining fast.â€ He let go of Amaya, turning and cracking his neck. Finally, he let his illusion drop, revealing the beastman beneath. â€œI can jump up to it, though. You two keep running. Iâ€™ll hold them off.â€
â€œNo. We stand together.â€ Amaya laid a hand on Tenrekâ€™s shoulder, reluctantly drawing her sword.
Fokuf, however, was peering at the ship. â€œMaybe we wonâ€™t have to fight at all.â€ He cupped his hands. â€œAhoy! Khory! I havenâ€™t seen you in months, old boy!â€
As Tenrek and Amaya turned to gape at their companion, the boat shifted its direction, turning parallel. A burly man leaned out, grinning and waving. â€œHello, Regent! The Caretaker sends his greetings, and thought you might like a lift!â€
Fokuf laughed, and nodded. Turning to the others, he spoke quickly. â€œThis is a friend â€“ he helped us out some time ago.â€ As the ship dipped, he gestured. â€œShall we?â€
Tenrek sighed heavily, then nodded. â€œIf you say itâ€™s safeâ€¦ I trust you. Amaya?â€
â€œOf course we trust you, Fokuf.â€ Amaya took Tenrekâ€™s hand, and the beastman leapt upwards. A moment later Fokuf followed, climbing the rope that Khory had thoughtfully dropped. As he crossed the surface, he nodded to the other man.
â€œKhory. What brings you to Gethemane?â€
â€œWell, itâ€™s a long story.â€ Khory glanced over the other two, and then grinned. â€œIâ€™ll tell you what I can on the way, but itâ€™s probably best that we all meet together for the full story.â€
â€œI see.â€ Fokuf frowned thoughtfully, looking over to his friends. â€œAnd where are we going?â€
â€œA little place in the west. Itâ€™s called Juriss.â€