â€œGood afternoon, Draniel! Good hunting today?â€ Jura paused in her weaving to wave cheerfully to the Paladin.
â€œVery good, Jura.â€ Draniel smiled faintly, raising the heavy bag he carried. â€œParts for that skimmer, most likely.â€
â€œAmazing.â€ Jura grinned, then bowed impulsively. â€œAdorjan guide you.â€ She returned to her weavings, humming quietly.
Draniel couldn't suppress a smile, despite his heavy thoughts. His presence, and his words, continued to spread through the Reaches, and his ability to hunt down and destroy the rogue custodial spirits that usually caused so much trouble for the exiles had netted many rewards over the last two months. When he had arrived, this place could only have been considered a camp, but now it showed the signs of a true town. Close to a thousand people now congregated near, listening to the words of Adorjan, and shrines and stories were springing up across the local Reaches. It amazed him, at times. The people here were starved for hope â€“ Autochthon had left them none. They were coming to him in numbers that defied belief.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned in time to catch a thrown bottle, snatching it out of the air with ease. He smiled again, shaking his head. â€œDamik. You know it can be dangerous to try and surprise me.â€
â€œWe know we couldn't.â€ Damik grinned widely. Dressed in clothes that, while poor, were now stitched and fitted to his size, the boy looked healthier than he had when Draniel had met him. Nami, standing beside him as always, fidgeted quietly, still shy around the powerful Paladin. â€œAre you going to tell us about the Kukla, today? You said last time...â€
â€œOf course. Give me an hour or so to deliver these to Luin, and to wash from my journey, and tell the other children.â€ Draniel nodded again. â€œAnd Damik? The border scouts said you were off bothering them again. Don't do that. It could be dangerous.â€
â€œEverything could be dangerous.â€ Shrugging, Damik bowed and hurried off. Nami rolled her eyes at him, bowing also, and followed. With a chuckle, Draniel turned and headed towards Luin's tent. His smile faded as he considered the last two months.
It had been easy, that was true, and it filled him with hope to know that the people here were so ready to listen to the truth. And yet... there had still been no response from Autochthonia. He had expected the first investigations to arrive a month ago. Half the local Reaches were gathered here, and he was receiving converts from as far away as Estasia and Kamak. It was impossible for Yugash not to know what was happening here; by know, there should have been at least two Alchemicals exploring the area, with patrols trying to cut off refugees and possibly even the occasional skirmish. He should have been able to isolate and interrogate one of Autochthon's minions weeks ago, and be well on his way to the Core.
Instead, there was nothing. The Alchemicals of Yugash went on patrol, but in groups of four or more. Draniel knew he was more than a match for one or two, but without proper information, couldn't gage his ability against greater numbers. The exiles went ignored as Yugash and Estasia rattled their sabres at one another. And while Draniel's cult grew, his plans stalled.
Finding the large tent where Luin residing, Draniel knocked on the doorframe. He rested his bag on the ground until the town elder's voice called out a greeting, and then he pushed through the heavy fabric to step inside. â€œAdorjan watch you, Master Luin. I have brought the parts you were hoping to find.â€
â€œYou are a blessing on us all, Master Draniel.â€ Luin was sitting on a mat, mechanical parts spread out before him. â€œMay I see them?â€ Draniel handed over the bag silently, and Luin inspected the contents, before finding what he was looking for with a cry of delight. â€œBeautiful! With this, I believe I can have that reachskimmer working by tomorrow. It should help you when the time comes for you to leave us.â€
Draniel inclined his head graciously. â€œYou are, as always, very kind to me.â€
â€œNonsense. I give you no more than your due. After all that you have done for us, it would take a cold man to deny you anything.â€ Luin smiled again, already hard at work on the machine. â€œAt the risk of sounding rude, is there any news on that front?â€
â€œNone.â€ Draniel sighed heavily. He'd had this discussion with Luin every day for the last two weeks or more, and the answer was always the same. â€œI do not understand it.â€
â€œPerhaps even the cities see the truth in your words. Autochthon is dying, after all, and you bring the hope of change.â€
â€œPerhaps.â€ Draniel's response was not enthusiastic. He settled into quiet, watching the elder work. There was something peaceful about the thoughtful, methodical way that Luin worked his way though the repairs to the machine's power core. Draniel let himself slip into meditative thoughtfulness, watching the other's hands move gently but purposefully.
His reverie was shattered by the clanging sound of the northern border bell being rung. As Luin looked up in alarm, Draniel sprang to his feet. Dashing out of the tent, he slipped his arms into his cloak, coming free with his brass razorclaws and strapping them on even as he ran, outpacing the townsfolk who were now scrambling for weapons and cover.
As he approached the northern gate, he dove forwards suddenly, feeling the whisper of the air above him. A moment later, a pair of crossbow bolts slammed into the ground behind him, and he twisted around a tent to come to rest next to a pair of exiles. â€œSituation?â€
â€œBad.â€ The woman shrugged, reaching out to grab a quarrel from the ground, checked it for damage, then fit it into her crossbow. â€œWe've got two hundred soldiers in the northern tunnels, and there are four Alchemicals leading them. They've shattered the entire bulwark, killed dozens of people already.â€ She shook her head. â€œWe've taken out ten or fifteen. They weren't expecting a fight. But then...â€ She broke off. â€œWe can't fight Exalts, sir. I'm sorry.â€
â€œDon't be.â€ Draniel stood slowly. By all rights, the camp should have been a ruin by now, but over the last two months he had been using his magics to train a few hundred of the locals until they were a match for any Autochthian soldier. â€œI don't want you throwing your lives away without need.â€ Standing slowly, he let Essence flood his form, jaw clenched. â€œThis is my fight.â€
He stepped out from the tent, green light billowing from his body. Soldier gasped in fear and dropped their weapons, staggering backwards as his gaze swept the enemy. Here and there, he could see bodies draped over objects, pierced by lightning or crossbow bolts, as the Yugashi forces had advanced. His voice rang out over the assemblage. â€œI am Draniel, the Paladin of Adorjan. It is me you are seeking, Alchemicals. Come out and face me.â€
â€œYou?â€ An elegant silver man stepped forwards from the mass, one eyebrow raised. â€œGreetings, Paladin. I am Excessively Righteous Blossom, leader of this patrol. I have come to eradicate the vermin of the Reaches. And I must confess, I have no idea who you are.â€