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  1. VVesley

    Chapter 24

    Interesting take on Marion! I'd have to agree that is the direction she is going. Thank you for reading, and for the comment!
  2. VVesley

    Chapter 24

    Indeed! We couldn't let K & A get away to get their happy ending that easily Thanks for reading and for the comment!
  3. VVesley

    Chapter 24

    The prince of the Illjard heard his barrelman easily, despite his perch high atop the main mast. “Ship approaching! Clarion emblem!” He blew a shrill whistle, and multiple crewmates sprang into action. A large rush of people crowded to get below deck to access the armory. Adrian hoped that there wouldn’t be a fight, but he was fully prepared for one already. Up here? It was improbable, but Adrian trusted Captain Bjornan’s crew. And they all seem to trust the barrelman. “Where is it?” Kade asked from his side. “I don’t see any ship.” They had been on deck at the time that the alert was called, engaged in flirtatious conversation. When the alarm came, Kade had snapped out of their chatting quickly and began scanning the water. Adrian could just barely make it out himself, but it was there indeed. He used a small spyglass that had been nearby, and pointed it in the direction of what he thought he saw. Sure enough, a huge sail bore a field of needles that indicated the vessel belonged to Yago Clarion. The sail dwarfed the boat, which was much smaller than Adrian’s. He could tell that it was designed to navigate calmer waters, ferrying goods back and forth on small trips. He was surprised to see a ship of that size on the ocean, but he supposed they weren’t too far off the western coast of the continent. What was more surprising was where they were. Adrian had just circled around what would be the edge of the Coyne territories in Ironia half a day ago. He estimated that he couldn’t be too much more than halfway down the length of Ironia, which was a considerable distance from Nabian waters. I hope this doesn’t mean what I think it does. “Here,” he said as he handed the tool to Kade. He stood behind the Nabian, and gently moved him by the shoulders so that he was facing in roughly the right direction. “Close one eye, and look through here. Find the horizon, and scan along it’s edge until you see it.” Kade struggled for a few minutes getting acclimated to the spyglass, but eventually located it. “I see it!” he said excitedly. “Ah, yes, that’s definitely General Clarion.” His excitedness quickly devolved to a frown, and tension began to creep into his shoulders. “Yes. That’s not a good sign.” Adrian had given explicit orders for the barrelmen and any other navigators to be on the lookout for Clarion vessels. He had expected that they may run into some once they got closer to the south of Nabius, but wasn’t mentally prepared for an encounter all the way out here. “Does that mean… do you really think he has a network all the way out here? He’s established trade with Ironia?” “It would seem that way, yes.” They paused for a moment before Kade asked another question, clearly catching up and running through all of the implications that this encounter brought. “Why hasn’t your Order caught it yet?” “I wouldn’t be surprised if they have. But it’s a bit more difficult to get things done in this part of Ironia. The Coyne and Monciet territories are the only lands left with formal monarchies, and government from the shore to Solstice Peak is practically non-existent. A lot of Ironia is comprised of farming and tribal communities still.” Kade nodded, absorbing the information. “I see. So… there’s no telling how many people are already infected.” “Exactly. Or how many have already died.” They went quiet at that for a little while, before Kade spoke up again. “Lets hope this ship isn’t carrying food products.” “Agreed.” After about half an hour, Captain Bjornan raised a flag signaling the other boat to stop. Adrian knew that they would be able to see it by now, provided they had any navigators that were worth a damn. The two ships were plainly visible to one another, and it would be just another hour or so before they passed. Adrian and Kade spent the hour inspecting the ship and its crew, ensuring that they were ready for potential resistance. Once the ships were close enough, they each dropped anchor. Captain Bjornan lowered a gangway from the massive Ironian ship to the smaller Nabian trading vessel, which formed a steep ramp downwards. Kade squeezed Adrian’s hand in a reassuring way, and Adrian marched down the pathway along with six Illjardi soldiers. When they were all aboard and lined up in a regal formation, Adrian called out to the people on deck, all of whom were staring at him in silent confusion. “Who is the Captain of this vessel?” “I,” said the voice of a man with long, filthy hair. “Who in all the hells are you?” The disrespect was obvious, but Adrian did not let his face falter. He knew that the ship had only stopped because of the size difference in boats, and the potential threat that came along with that. “I am Prince Adrian Fray of the Illjard.” A few faces showed recognition at that, and Adrian felt that was a good thing. “Is this ship owned by Yago Clarion of the Thirteen?” “Aye.” “What are you transporting?” “Foods. Are you looking to restock?” Adrian frowned. It was not the answer he had been hoping for. “Yes, I am. Could you bring forward an example of your product?” The captain nodded, and two burly men carried a heavy wooden crate over to the area of the deck where Adrian stood. They opened the top of the box, and Adrian peered inside. Meat. Adrian thought long and hard about how to address this, and had come up with a plan well in advance. Kade had been the first to suggest it. “What kind of meat is it?” “Cow,” the captain said without hesitation. The contents of the crate did look like steaks, but Adrian felt sick at the possibility of what it might actually be. “I see. Where from?” “The south,” the captain said vaguely. A tone of suspicion crept into his voice, but Adrian didn’t feel like playing shy. “And where is this shipment headed? You’re a long ways away from Nabian soil.” The captain hocked and spit over the edge of the boat, keeping an eye fixed on Adrian. “Trade’s allowed with Ironia still. The parts we ain’t fighting.” “Indeed, it is. But don’t Ironians have their own cattle? An overabundance of them, I’ve heard.” The man gave him a long, hard look, and Adrian felt aggression thickening the air around them. “Look. Are you buying, or not?” “I am,” Adrian said with a smile, trying to deescalate the situation. That did seem to placate the man somewhat, and his body language betrayed signs of relaxing a little bit. “But first, would you mind sampling a piece? I always just like to make sure my men have the highest quality, and most tradesmen don’t mind demonstrating.” “Sure,” the man said with a shrug. He pulled a knife out, and carved a tiny sliver of dried meat off of one of the slabs in the crate. He held it out to Adrian, indicating that he should take it. “Oh. I’m sorry – I meant you. Would you mind sampling it? A tradesman that believes in his own product is a tradesmen that I would be more apt to trust.” “A tradesman that samples his own wares is a shit tradesman,” he replied. The response came a little too quickly, and Adrian knew what he needed to do. He hesitated for a few moments, but then nodded. “Touché. We’ll take three crates. If you could have your men bring them up to the gangplank, I’ll go and fetch my gold.” The Clarion captain smiled a nasty grin at that, and nodded. He shouted orders to have three crates of only the finest product to be brought up from below deck, and Adrian began walking back up the gangway. Here goes nothing. Once he and his soldiers made it back, there was only the briefest nod exchanged between Adrian and Sarah Bjornan. The second the last man crossed the threshold of the ship, she gave a quick, loud whistle. Immediately, soldiers sprang up from where they had been crouched on the other side of the ship’s railings. Each armed with bows, they unleashed a torrent of arrows, killing the crewmates that were above deck with incredible precision. As the Nabians began to panic and run for cover, Adrian gave the second command. “Burn it.” Bags of pitch were lobbed over the water between the two boats, and a few torches were thrown as well. It only took twenty minutes before Bjornan had raised anchor again, and the ship was off. The remnants of a ship smoldered behind them, sending a thick column of black smoke into the air. Adrian didn’t look back as wind caught in pristine white sails, and Kade came up from behind him, grabbing him by the hand. They said nothing, simply staring out over the waters that parted before them. After a while, Adrian addressed his fiancé. “You’re sure you know how to get in?” “I have a general idea.” “Just general?” “Good enough. I think.” “Okay,” Adrian said with a sigh. “Either way, we have to try.” “Agreed. I saw Yago once, when I was young. At the carnival. He hunted people for sport.” Adrian gulped, hating everything about that. “I can’t imagine a world where more people act like that.” “Me neither.” Another long silence went by, and Adrian released Kade’s hand, grabbing him by the waist and pulling him close. We’ll do everything we can to help. Onwards to you, Alexandre. *** The destruction was much worse than anything Luca had imagined. Alexandre and other generals had used fire as a tactic in battle before, but never on a scale like this. My gods. Luca had understood the plan from the very beginning. Riderless horses – as many as could be spared – were saddled with bags of the very smelly powder that Marion had brought with her. When they reached the front lines, small slits were made in each bag so that powder leaked out in steady streams. The horses were sent into the fray, and had largely been ignored by enemies. They clearly hadn’t anticipated the move, and seemed more confused by it than anything. Most of the horses made it through the back lines, all the way up to the base of the mountains. Yago’s palace loomed down at them from above, and the wave of horses broke once the terrain became too hilly to climb. Some of the horses had bags of oil as well, and others were burdened down with dried leaves and sticks that would make for excellent kindling. It had taken almost half an hour, but the animals had run through the crowds and spread their various accoutrements through the battlefield. A large number had been sent towards the body collectors, and Luca could smell the sulfur from where stood in the war camp. Eamon had been beside him, and Luca was faithfully describing the scene. When Marion gave the order, a wave of archers with flaming arrows loosed destruction into the sky. The first few arrows fell without too much drama, but when the right ones connected, the noise was deafening. Displaced ground rocketed into the sky, and flames and smoke roared to life. It spread rapidly through the enemy lines, and friendly soldiers that had strayed too close were caught in the pandemonium as well. Luca felt sorry for the people who would die this way – especially the friendly ones. They hadn’t anticipated that this new weapon would be so effective, and had strayed too close. Luca didn’t blame them, though. I wouldn’t have known either. The rebelling Nabians, Tomacians, and Ironians on the field stayed far back, and continued to shoot flame into the corpses. Luca could tell that the smoke produced would haze the air for days, and Yago’s mountaintop palace began to be obscured from view in no time at all. Luca watched for half an hour, stunned into silence. Eamon had pestered him with some questions about what was going on, but had caught on based on the sounds and smells that hung in the air. Immediately, Luca knew that this would pave the way for new standards of warfare. He mulled over what this meant and the sheer destructive force of it all, all the while keeping one eye on Marion. All in all, he knew one thing for sure. She has too much power. We need to reclaim Jezebel’s territory after all this is over. Luca smiled wryly to himself. All of the other Generals looked down on Jack Du Vance and his lands – those mines were considered worthless before this. Now, whoever controls those mines becomes a superpower. He smiled genuinely now, reflecting on what this could have meant in another reality. At least Jezebel won’t be alive to realize that. And she threw such a fit at being handed the Du Vance territory in the first place. It is kind of funny. He grabbed Eamon’s hand, and began to guide him back towards the tent. “Lets go. I don’t want to see this.” *** Eamon was certain that he wasn’t the only one who had broken the rules, but that on top of the regular pressure made him nervous as he took his place at the next meeting of the rebellion leaders. The knife he had stored inside a leather bracer was pressing into his skin, so he moved his arm gently while trying to make sure he didn’t accidentally cut himself. It probably wasn’t completely necessary, but being armed at least helped to take the edge off. If anything goes wrong, I get Luca and myself the hell out. He cared for his friends, but he cared for Luca more. And they can handle themselves. It was mainly Marion Monciet and Jared Coyne that Eamon didn’t trust, especially after the attack of a few hours ago. The stink of burning flesh filled the air everywhere, and Marion had continuously sent wave after wave of flame accelerant into the midst of the battlefield. The audacity of the attack was staggering, and Eamon knew that even Alexandre had been impressed. Anyone who can pull something like that off shouldn’t be trusted. He frowned, thinking to himself about how he would escape if there were an argument between the generals and monarchs. It would help if I was better with a knife, but Luca brought his walking stick. I can use that to fight our way out of this. Luca was the only one permitted to bring a weapon to the table, being that he wasn’t a fighter and he really did have to rely on a staff sometimes, on account of the various injuries he had accrued while feuding with Jezebel Di Coteau. I’m sure all of the others have hidden weapons as well. Anyway, today wouldn’t have been a high alert day if it weren’t for Marion demonstrating what she’s capable of earlier. Best to just be prepared. Around the table, the same group of leaders congregated to discuss a new issue. They were summoned for another meeting by Luca, which had surprised everyone. Part of Eamon’s tensions were that Luca would be in the limelight, and he only had a faint idea of what Luca was going to say. If its bad news, who knows how they might react? When everyone was settled, Luca began to speak. “Thank you all for coming.” He cleared his throat awkwardly, and Eamon could practically feel the anticipation rolling off of the world leaders in waves. “I’ve called you all here today to discuss another contingency plan that has recently become available to us.” That caught the attention of everyone there, and they remained silent. “As most of you know, Prince Adrian Fray has been a close ally of mine for some time.” That’s one way to put it. “He recently informed me that he, at the behest of both the Hallowed Order and his pending groom, is assisting in dismantling what General Clarion has set up.” Eamon shifted in his seat at that, and thought what he was sure was on the minds of everyone else there. What could he possibly do? He has almost no military. “Prince Fray recognizes the danger that Yago Clarion places us all in, and has pledged to destroy as many trading vessels of Clarion’s as he can. His naval strength is unparalleled, so this should be a great asset to us.” A small murmur of approval went around the table, but then Marion spoke. “That’s great, but why summon a meeting just to tell us that? Couldn’t we have all been informed by courier?” “I’m not done yet,” Luca said, a slight edge to his voice. That quieted the queen, and he continued. “As I was saying, in addition to this, he’s offering another contingency. He believes that he can get a team into Yago’s home by sea.” The group was silent for a little while before Marion spoke again. “What? His lands don’t even extend to the coast.” “He’s thinking of using the same pass that General Di Coteau informed us Ysabel is targeting.” “She might be able to make it through the provinces, but a whole team won’t surely?” “Actually, Prince Fray seems to think it’s quite possible. He’s got information about a smuggling route up the coast that comes out directly near the entrance to the mountain tunnels.” “And where,” growled Devan Di Coteau, “did he get this information?” Luca turned to him calmly, and Eamon heard no trace of fear in his voice when he addressed the General. “Your son. Apparently, Kade Hawkins has quite the compendium of knowledge about smuggling routes throughout Nabius, learned at his time in the academy.” Eamon was floored by the statement, but realized that it was indeed possible. Kade did say he was going the thievery route in the academy when he was there. I don’t know what they teach, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were maps of trading routes involved. Actually, I don’t think hardly anyone knows about what they teach there. Thievery and smuggling was not a common elective choice in Nabian academies, given that it was often seen as less honorable than other tracks. It was also inherently more risky to rise to power through stolen wealth, as Nabian law allowed for retribution against anyone who got caught. General Di Coteau sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I tried to keep him away from all of this shit. He was so close.” Alex responded then, his voice softer than normal. “Sometimes destiny can’t be avoided, Uncle. Especially when you’re in our family.” Devan just sighed again, and the group looked to Luca again expectantly. “Adrian will be at a port in southern Ironia in a few hours. He’ll pick up anyone that wants to make their way through the tunnels with Kade’s guidance. If we can get the right team in, we can take him out.” Eamon felt a few people look around at each other, but eventually spoke up to break the silence. “I’ll go.” “What? No,” Luca blurted out, faltering in his formal elocution. “I’ll go,” he says again. “I owe a debt to Talia. It’s the least I can do to try and save her.” Eamon was truthfully unsure of whether he really should embark on this mission or not, with his main hesitation being leaving Luca behind. He was hoping that his eager bravery would spur the group of leaders on. “I will dedicate myself to this mission too,” Carl volunteered. Even though he was blind, Eamon could picture the Tomacian prince standing valiantly, annunciating his intent to go grandiosely. “No you won’t,” Alexandre said, and Eamon knew that he either rolled his eyes, or made a conscious effort to resist doing so. “I need you here. In my current state, we can’t risk you either.” “But I – “ “NO.” “Alexandre is right,” Laura Nandra said, speaking up for the first time. “While he is injured, you should be here. It makes no sense to risk you. On top of that, we still don’t know how Yago is going to respond to the latest turn of events. You two started this war, and it’s your responsibility to stay here and finish it.” Carl stood in stubborn silence for a few moments, before Eamon heard him sit down again. “Fine.” “That being said,” Almanita spoke up coyly, “despite my own wife being injured, I also have a duty to go. Yago Clarion stole knowledge from me many years ago, and has been using it to inflict suffering on people for too long. It’s why I formed my group of girls and taught them how to defend themselves in the first place. I will go.” “Nita…” Laura Nandra said with hesitation in her voice. “It is done. I will go,” she insisted. Laura didn’t say anything after that. “I will also go.” The husky voice was Devan Di Coteau’s, and Eamon didn’t have to guess his reasoning. His son is on this mission. “Very well,” Elsa Torne said with an air of finality. “Reinforcements for Ysabel Clarion will be on their way courtesy of the Illjardi prince. This, at least, gives me a little more hope for the future of this fight. I suggest you each take a horse and head to the coast as soon as possible – we’ll want to end this before anyone catches wind of it.”
  4. VVesley

    Chapter 23

    Indeed! We'll see who, if anyone, succeeds soon! Thank you for reading and for the comment!
  5. VVesley

    Chapter 23

    Carlisle Cathcart was a prince, a leader, a husband, and a hard worker. There were very few people in the world that could make him doubt himself, or feel like a fool. His parents, his husband, and the mentors that he grew up with reserved that very special right, and several days into the siege of Yago Clarion’s territory, it happened. Carl set the letter that he had received from Director Chamberlin down, and put his head in his hands. I never should have doubted all of you. I should have come to you for advice instead of holding you in suspicion. If I had just been straightforward all those months ago in Tomacia, maybe we could have avoided the situation we’re in now. He stood up to pace, and shook his head. He knew that there was no point in dwelling on the past, but it was frustrating that secrecy had cost him so much. If he had done as his parents suggested and joined the Hallowed Order, maybe he would have known about Yago Clarion’s designs sooner. On the other hand, maybe the Order should have been a bit more public and warned us before we took the collective troops of Nabius into battle. But no, he thought, this is no time for casting blame. He continued pacing, only to stop for a moment to look towards the tent’s bed at Alex. He was asleep there, though twitching fitfully. Carl suspected he was in more pain than he was letting on, and wasn’t taking the proper steps to fully heal. He hoped his husband would get some rest before he needed to be filled in on this. He’s spreading it with meat. Human meat. Carl felt revolted, and was extremely concerned for the citizens of the continent. Yago had been able to develop widescale trading networks, there was no telling how many people could already be infected. Chamberlin had of course briefed Richard and Carmine Cathcart, but even a ban on imported meats wouldn’t catch all distribution. And now it makes sense that General Clarion is troop matching. He wants even fights so as to produce the most carnage possible. In turn, that gives him more of what he needs to continue the operation. Disgusting. Earlier that evening, Carl had made the call to slowly reduce the number of troops rotated into the battlefield at one time. As expected, Yago had done the same. Carl thought about the rest of Chamberlin’s letter, particularly that he had explained that the disease killed as many as it drove mad. The entire idea is insane. But seeing Ysabel… the truth of the words rang inside him, and Carl felt like he understood the opposition’s end game for the first time. We’ll keep pulling them out. Numbers of those on the front lines had been dwindling all afternoon, but Carl knew that Yago would never allow a full cessation of battle. He still needed bodies, and if they were to give up, Yago would simply send his troops into the camps. That was the last thing Carl needed, but he felt unsure of what to do. So, he had continued to test the waters throughout the day, pulling several hundred men out at a time to see how Yago would respond. So far, it didn’t seem like the General had noticed that they were on to him. In Carl’s mind, there were only a few options for moving forward. The first was that they could continue to fight as is, and hope that Yago’s troops would run out. Given that he had free reign over the provinces for a few decades. Carl didn’t put much faith in that. Secondly, they could start killing the ‘collectors’ – a term that the men had begun using to designate the tribespeople that were carting bodies off in the middle of battle. That would likely enrage Yago, but he probably had more replacements for that too. The last option was to mount an assault that would be so overwhelming that they could penetrate Yago’s homestead, and try to get to him. This didn’t seem feasible, as General Clarion likely had a large number of troops on reserve, and his home was nearly impenetrable. Carl sighed, feeling lost and defeated. Yago had them cornered, with no way to win. I’ll discuss this with the rest of the leadership during the meeting tomorrow. Maybe the Ironians will have some new ideas. Or perhaps Luca will think of something – he’s generally a good problem solver. Carl wished he could wake Alexandre up and talk to him about this immediately, but he figured he would let the younger general sleep while he had the chance. He knew Alex would be mad at him for not providing this information the moment that he got it, but he didn’t care. At least we’ve got the Ironians on our side now too. The price was high, but the reinforcements will be worth it. Jared Coyne and Marion Monciet were slated to arrive the next morning, and would likely be all for finding a solution to help to end the war sooner rather than later. The only reason they were risking their troops was because Carl had promised them Nabian territories, including Alexandre’s home. The contents of the letter he had received might sway them to feel a bit more passionately about the outcome, though. I hope. Either way, this is going to be a difficult war to win. We need another option. What we really need is to kill Yago. If we could somehow cut the head off of the snake, then we could work on dismantling what he’s built. *** Marion took her place at the makeshift table in the middle of the war camp, shoulders hunched and suspicions high. It wasn’t often that so many leaders from the continent congregated, and tension was palpable as a result. Once again, Marion found herself in a summit to try to work together. Once again, she was prepared to end everyone there if she felt threatened. Though I will exercise restraint, she thought with a sideways glance at Jared, who was to her right. The prince had yelled at her like he never had yelled at anyone in his life. It turned out that the destruction of the Order had been a massive mistake, and Marion now saw the error of her ways. I refuse to feel guilty, though, she told herself. Guilt did still twinge in the back of her mind, despite her attempts to remain confident. If I had known… all of those people would still be alive. “Thank you for coming, everyone,” Alexandre Di Coteau said from his seat at the round table. He was seated next to his husband, and looked paler than normal. He looks sick. Marion knew about his injury on the battlefield, but didn’t realize that it had been downplayed for the masses until just then. He is weak. Weaker than he wants to seem. “We’ve got a lot to get through today, so I appreciate your punctuality.” Marion resisted the urge to roll her eyes, only slightly narrowing them instead. Even half dead he manages to come off as condescending. ‘You have no ground to stand on right now,’ her mind told her in Jared’s voice. ‘Show some respect.’ “I assume by now all of you are aware of my Uncle’s designs on this continent. Now that the Hallowed Order has been… spurred… into action,” he said with a glance in the direction of Marion and Jared, “I’ve been told that they informed you all of what was going on.” The group nodded, and Marion looked around the table. Alexandre and Carl, the Steward Luca and his guard – lover? I don’t understand why he keeps getting included – plus Elsa Torne, Laura and Almanita Nandra, and Devan Di Coteau. Devan Di Coteau was the only face she hadn’t seen in person before, being that the Nandras and Elsa Torne were both members of the Order. She wondered if any of the Generals bore her any ill will for the destruction of the Order at her hand, but doubted it. Nandra’s brother helped me do it, and Torne has probably killed the most people of anyone at the table. Seated directly across from Luca, Marion thought of her ex-sister-in-arms Jezebel, who he had dispatched. The young man’s innocent features and boyish good looks painted him as cherubic, but Marion knew that he was just as deadly as the rest of them. When Marion had his background looked into, she discovered that he was also suspected in the death of Yonin Meko, a prominent trader and sex trafficker. It’s like being in a pit of vipers. “Please reiterate, so that I can assume I am on the same page.” The voice that spoke up was Devan Di Coteau’s, and it was deep and gravelly sounding. She figured that of everyone there, he probably had the least connections to the Order. “Yago is using the bodies generated by this war to infect food supplies around the country, thereby inflicting disease on it’s inhabitants,” Almanita Nandra spoke up. “The disease causes mania, paranoia, and an increased drive for violence. We need to simultaneously win this territory, disrupt his supply chains, and stop him from collecting the corpses of the fallen.” A concise assessment, Marion thought while eyeing her old mentor. “What we need is for someone to infiltrate Yago’s palace and take him out,” Eamon said with annoyance in his voice. “If we could just get to him, we could stop the orders from flowing.” “We’ve got that in the works, of course,” said Elsa Torne. She checked her nails while making the statement, practically oozing nonchalance. “Plenty of people are attempting to get through enemy lines as one of them as we speak.” “Not that any of them will make it. Would-be assassins in Yago’s territories will be found and shamed faster than you can say ‘we tried,’” Laura Nandra growled. “I know,” replied General Torne with a look of regret on her face. “But all of the bodies I threw at that volunteered.” Nandra rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything more on the subject. “We may have a better chance than you think,” Devan said evenly. Marion interpreted that as him having information that no one else did, but she didn’t raise her voice to question him. “It’s notoriously difficult to get into the mountains,” Alex piped up. “No one will make it.” “Not from the north, no. But some people say there are tunnels through the mountains to Yago’s home. They connect him to the tribal lands. The assassin that I know is on the way can make it through those.” “Sure,” Jared began, “but then they’d have to go through the provincial lands. Nobody could survive that. They’re all Yago’s people anyway.” Marion nodded her head in agreement, and saw that several others in the circle were doing the same. “Nobody could survive that but one of their own.” “You have an assassin that’s a member of the tribes?” Alex asked incredulously. “No,” his uncle replied calmly. “I’m referring to your mother.” The group went silent for a minute, taking in what Devan had just told them. To Marion, it now made sense why Ysabel Clarion was not at the meeting and hadn’t been seen in over a week. Who better to get by than Yago’s family? After a little time had passed, Alexandre spoke again. “It’s a nice contingency to have, but I don’t think we can rely on it. We need to think of something else.” Marion agreed with that, and waited for someone else to speak up. After a little while, Almanita Nandra spoke again. “Does anyone have a proposition? It seems that our problems can’t be solved compatibly.” “I agree,” said Alexandre with a sigh. “We can’t devote troops to stop the body collectors. It seems like we’re outmatched there, even with the Ironian reinforcements.” “What if we don’t have to collect them?” Marion asked coolly. “What do you mean?” “I’m not quite sure yet. Lady Nandra, do you know anything about how the infection is spread other than through consummation?” “I’m not sure I follow,” Almanita replied to her mentee. “The meat is ritualized, and then eaten. That seems to be all that it takes.” “The shipment in my region that was destroyed by the order contained only raw or salted product. Preserved, but not cooked.” Almanita appeared to catch on now, and she slowly nodded. “Yes – what was on that boat? She asked her wife.” Laura scratched her head, and shrugged her shoulders. “Just bacon, I think. Well, so we thought,” the General said with a grimace. “You think we can burn the bodies?” Luca asked, having grasped the situation. “I do,” Marion replied. “If the corpses are cooked, perhaps the disease that’s latent in us will be killed. Then they won’t be useable, and we can continue the assault.” “I’m all for that,” Prince Cathcart said. “But piling the bodies and getting them to light would be a lot of work. We might as well go back to the idea of killing the tribespeople that are collecting.” “Actually,” Marion said, “I have a bit more dramatic of a solution. The use of a substance that you all should be familiar with by now.” Recognition sparked in everyone’s eyes, and Marion knew that it would work. “We’ll have to sacrifice some horses to get it spread on the enemy’s side of the field, but I’m sure you have plenty of riderless beasts by now?” Alexandre nodded. “We do,” he said quietly. “Very well. We’ll rig them to carry pots in, and send fire in once they’re far enough. It can be a simultaneous attack and problem solver.” “How long would it take to get more powder from the mines in Jack Du Vance’s lands?” Marion thought it was interesting that Carlisle didn’t refer to the territory as Jezebel’s. “Not long,” Marion said, even though the question had been intended for Alexandre. “My sisters and I have taken control of Jezebel Di Coteau’s former lands, and have been amassing the substance for weeks. I’ve got plenty here with me already.” Alexandre raised an eyebrow, and then looked from Marion to Almanita. It was clear that he wasn’t aware that they had commandeered the land away from his family, but Marion simply held his gaze. Almanita had the decency to look guilty, but gave a noncommittal shrug. That’s not going to be the only land I take from you, General. Best get used to it. He didn’t say anything for a while, but then sighed and gave assent. “Very well. Lets use what you have as a trial. If we can work mass burnings into a regular schedule, my uncle may react. We may as well try.” Marion nodded, feeling victorious over Alexandre’s acknowledgement of her taking territory. “Excellent. I’ll get the plan organized, and we can send a wave of fire in in a few hours. Next topic?” Marion made tense eye contact with Alexandre and Carl, but eventually the hostility wore out and the group began discussing additional battle tactics. Huh. I actually do wonder how General Clarion will react.
  6. VVesley

    Chapter 22

    Indeed! A lack of transparency really hurt them in this case. Thank you for reading and leaving a comment!
  7. VVesley

    Chapter 22

    Indeed! As was guessed in the comments, the Order and Chamberlin weren't so bad after all. It does! It's the same mission that Carl went on, Alex went on, Jezebel went on, and Talia went on. The success rate is a bit low... Thank you for reading and commenting!
  8. VVesley

    Chapter 22

    Ysabel Clarion continued to ride, eyes ahead and slightly down. A brown rough-spun cloak hid her long hair and face, and oversized sleeves masked the claws that she wore on her hands. She was heading south via a westward path to get around the mountain range that guarded her brother’s back. She had taken an inconspicuous horse so as not to draw attention to her wealth, and she had made it quite far without being accosted. This was aided by the fact that Marie Lafeye had died, and Fran La Croix had headed south towards the main body of war. The people left in the general territories were mostly citizens, and Ysabel had been able to use this to her advantage. Just a few more days ride, she thought. She had spent the majority of her trip thinking back on her first visit to the provinces some months back. Yago had taken her through the tunnels that crawled under the mountains and connected his home to the tribal lands. The network was a labyrinth, and now Ysabel planned to voyage through it based on memory, and backwards. At least I paid attention when I was there. Maybe I’ll be able to find a guide through one of the tribespeople that was left behind. They trust me. That much Ysabel knew for certain. The tribes didn’t care about the political machinations of Nabius. They only care for religion and fighting, and I’m as close to a goddess as they will ever get. Ysabel sighed, trying to ignore the soreness in her legs that came with riding. I’ll get there eventually. And then I’ll get to you, my poor girl. *** Luca tried as hard as he could to fall asleep, numbing his thoughts and focusing on all the nothingness that he could muster. He was far enough from the front line that the noises of battle weren’t too loud, sounding more like a dull roar off in the distance. Almost like the ocean. He buried himself up to the chin in blankets, but what he had were cheap, war-rationed rags that weren’t all that comfortable. When he pulled them up, his feet were exposed to the air. He grumbled, but tried not to be too loud. How does he fall asleep so easily at a time like this? Luca nestled his head into Eamon’s chest, which was currently bare. He was asleep on his side, arms wrapped around Luca, and was breathing deeply, slowly, and evenly. Ordinarily, this rhythm would have soothed Luca, and lulled him into peaceful slumber. But as the days passed and battle continued to rage on, the younger man’s anxieties continued to climb. It’s not that I’m afraid we’ll lose. We’ve faced much worse odds and come out alive in the end. Plus there’s the contingency plan. Luca and Eamon had discussed an escape plan if things did get too bad. They had saved up some money, and would be able to hide in Ironia. Luca was from there already, and Eamon’s light hair and eyes would help him to blend in there. I just have this feeling that something worse is coming. Yago’s tactics don’t make sense. Luca shifted to lay on his back, and sighed. Try as he might, it made no sense that Yago was simply matching what was sent onto the field. If Alexandre sent 5,000 men, Yago sent 5,000 men. The only surplus were the tribespeople that were collecting bodies, which was another mystery. He could have crushed us by now. There must be an end game. Or maybe he really is just mad? Ugh. Uncomfortable and unable to relax, Luca threw his blanket off and got up off of the cot in he and Eamon’s shared tent. It was near Alexandre’s, and one of the perks that it had besides being slightly larger was that there was also a desk inside. “Luca?” asked a groggy Eamon. “It’s alright,” he whispered back. “Go to bed.” He pulled the blanket up over his lover, and Eamon rolled around, seeming to accept that. Luca padded quietly to the desk, and lit a candle. He wrote one schedule around camp duties that he had been putting off, and then took out a second piece of parchment. This second letter was more out of guilt, for things left unsaid and feelings left unresolved. Though he had already apologized, the frank possibility of death put things in perspective. He addressed it to the Di Coteau estate staff, for forwarding onto the local aviary. He hoped that they would have a bird that would be able to find a ship out at sea. Dear Adrian, I hope that this letter finds you safely back on your journey to your home. I wanted to write you to once again let you know that I couldn’t be sorrier for having brought sadness into your life. Our war continues, and each day that passes seems bleaker than the last. I can’t say that I am confident that it will go in either direction, but in light of the danger that we face, I thought I would write to you again – like how we used to, as friends. In the way of updates, nothing much has changed. Yago Clarion continues to mount a resistance against allied troops. We’re all puzzled as to why he refuses to mount an overwhelming fight. He’s simply matching our strength, and his troops focus half of their efforts on collecting the dead. We don’t know how long this will last, or if General Clarion intends it to end. Though we have no right to ask, any supplies that you can spare would be appreciated. If you have any merchants in the south, please let them know that we will gladly trade to be able to continue to weather this siege. Beyond updates, I hope that you know that I value your friendship, and care about your happiness. I know that you care for me in the same way. After meeting him, I am certain that Kade will bring joy to your life, and I’m grateful for that. This isn’t a goodbye, but a precaution. If I fall, or disappear, please just know that I have always considered myself lucky to be your friend. I am truly sorry for any pain that I have caused you. Best, Luca *** Jared Coyne notified his household staff that they should continue to operate as is, and that he would be extending his visit to the Monciet lands and Nabius. He briefly felt guilty about having a steward run his kingdom for so long, but everyone that he allowed into the main palace was a trusted confidant. Though taking care of his mother was a familial duty, Jared felt slight relief at not having to return to the mundane life of the Coyne lands and of acting as a caregiver. This is more important anyway. Jared had accepted Carlisle Cathcart’s proposition for aid in battle in exchange for Nabian territory, and had been surprised that the offer had even been on the table. Gaining back Ironian soil was of critical importance during this period of unrest in Nabius, and Jared saw the forfeiture of Generals’ territories as an absolute win. It would be symbolic, and give Ironia an advantage if they had to go to war with Nabius again after their civil war was concluded. I prefer that Alexandre wins anyway. He would be much easier to work with than Fran La Croix or Yago Clarion. Besides, he and Carl are good guys. Maybe not so much Alex, but I have a good enough feeling about him to give him a chance. And Carl is good for sure. So, he was honoring that back and directing a coordinating a mass of soldiers to march southeast and join in the fight. While going through the documents that he had before him, he noticed another letter bearing the Cathcart seal. That’s odd, he thought. Perhaps the prince has requested an amendment? It would be just my luck that we have to renegotiate now that we’ve got soldiers on the road. When he broke the seal and read over the contents, he was surprised to see that the letter was not from a Coyne family member at all. Prince Jared Coyne, I am sorry that this letter did not find its way to you sooner, for it could have prevented the catastrophe that you and your cousin have alighted. I have written to Queen Monciet as well, and hope that the two of you heed my words. As you know, the Hallowed Order has been split, and is on the verge of war within itself – a microcosm of the rest of the continent. The incident orchestrated by you and your family has been damaging beyond repair, and I suggest that you take extra caution in defending yourself. I nor many of my Tomacian companions intend you harm, but the friends and family of the dead cannot be trusted. After many inquiries, I have come to understand that the split in loyalty among the members of our order arose from a lack of shared information. While we regret our secrecy now, I can assure you that our intentions were and are noble. We have only operated in the shadows so as not to inflict widespread panic on the world. In brief, I will tell you what we have discovered. Yago Clarion, in conjunction with some of the old tribes of the provinces, has resurrected an ancient evil. It comes in the form of a disease of the mind, which induces mania and extreme aggression. You’ve seen or at least heard of it before, in legends of the old tribes or of modern day figures. Ysabel Clarion surely has been infected for the majority of her adult life, and we suspect that her more gruesome traits are a symptom of her suffering. This disease cannot be allowed to spread, as it is a terrible source of depravity in our world. It is introduced to the body by cannibalism, and subsequently encourages that trait. The trading caravans that Order members have destroyed contained tainted food product, designed to transmit the sickness. Laura Nandra’s territory was assaulted to destroy a boat ferrying product up and down the Pike, and the caravan that was destroyed and brought Queen Monciet’s wrath down upon us was also tainted. It is of the utmost importance that Yago Clarion is stopped. While preliminary, sources indicate that large numbers ofthose who ingest the disease perish soon after. Perhaps they are the lucky ones, for they do not stay alive to experience losing control of their minds and bodies. With your family crippling the Order, responsibility now falls on your shoulders. Further intelligence about Clarion’s network and ability to propagate this sickness will be sent over. Fix this. Sincerely, Brian Chamberlin of the Hallowed Order Jared reeled at the letter, reading it multiple times and putting the pieces together in his mind. He ran a hand through his hair, and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. Fuck, Marion. What have you done? *** Adrian Fray woke slowly, his mind rousing as the first rays of light from the sun on the sea’s horizon began to shine through the windows in his cabin. I was still dark, but rays filtered in with a soft glow that let him see. He was in the massive bed at the helm of the ship, Kade at his side. The younger man was peacefully resting, clinging to Adrian’s torso. The prince didn’t want to disturb his companion by moving, so he laid still and drank in the sight and scent of his fiancé. The room still smelled like sex, but Adrian found that comforting. I do have to remind myself that I am lucky, he thought idly. Kade is an excellent partner. And despite everything going on in the world, at least I’ll be able to return to that no matter what happens. Over the past few days, Adrian had been despairing over his duties. Three distinct paths of action were laid before him, and Adrian felt helpless at solving any of them. Come to the call of the Order. Marry Kade to do my duty to the Illjard and return home. Help Alexandre. These were the three burdens that weighed on his mind, that he had struggled to reconcile with one another. The last one was the least pressing of his warring interests, as there wasn’t much he could do on that front anyway. Were the Nabian conflict over naval territory, he could certainly have a presence. But as it was, getting soldiers from the Illjard to the mainland would take too long. Adrian knew that he probably wouldn’t put his people through a fight anyway – they were a dwindling population, and this wasn’t their fight. It was true that an Alexandre victory would make Nabius easier to work with, but that was not worth the cost of joining the fight at all. In any case, the Illjard was not supposed to pick sides in mainland politics. For now, Adrian could only hope for his friends’ sakes that they would survive. And Kade… Adrian thought of the young man that currently had his face buried into his shoulder, breathing slowly. He pushed a lock of soft brown hair out of his eyes, and ran his fingers behind Kade’s ear and under the jawline. He surely has interest in what happens. His family is still in Nabius, and will likely always be. What do I owe Kade, and my people? Is it fair to just pluck him away to fulfill my own political goals? He imagined asking the younger man if he was still okay with the union, but smiled, knowing what his answer would be. At least I have that going for me. And so long as we make it back before we’re cut off by snows, I’ll be able to retain my kingdom with him by my side. That only left the Order, which was why he had turned back anyway. I’d like to focus on that, but I’m not sure how I can if they won’t even respond to me. All of my contacts have been silent, despite knowing exactly where I am. It’s a bit difficult to know how I’m supposed to be helping. Adrian had guessed that it had something to do with his ships, as they were the most prominent asset he had. The Order would not ask for my help if I wasn’t able to provide it. They were near landfall again, and Adrian still didn’t know what he was expected to do. He sighed, and Kade began to stir in his arms. “Ugh,” the younger man said as he rubbed at his eyes. He opened them briefly, and then closed them again and pulled himself closer to Adrian. His legs wrapped around the prince’s, and they pressed together sensually under the furs. Adrian felt himself stirring, and Kade was as well. “Good morning. Sleep okay?” asked the Illjardi. “It was alright,” Kade replied with his head still buried in Adrian’s bare chest. Adrian loved this sensation, still unused to the warm blood and bodies of mainlanders. He briefly thought that it would be an incredible asset to have Kade warming his bed in the depths of the Illjardi winters. “It would be nice if the seas were a bit smoother though.” Adrian smiled. “I know. But we’ll make land in a few hours if we’re still on schedule.” Back to Nabius. “Do you know what you’re going to do yet? Or where we’re supposed to go?” “I don’t,” Adrian answered with a sigh. “I guess just circle ports to look for any signs of a plague while I wait for a reply. There are only a few diseases that the Order keeps tabs on, and very few of them are spread via ports. I should know what to look for.” “Okay. Maybe I can help too. What kind of symptoms would we be looking for?” “They would be extreme. Like skin scaling, or removal. Anything that’s highly contagious. Or that’s really lethal. Usually, business with the Order – the group I’m a part of – is just trying to preserve public health.” Kade snorted at that. “Great job they’ve done of it in Nabius. Have they ever been to the killing games at the yearly carnival? Not much ‘public health’ being preserved there.” Adrian had heard of the festivals that were held in the Capitol, and knew of Alexandre’s first-hand experience with them. “I suppose you’re right. Anyhow, I wouldn’t have been asked to help if there wasn’t something I could do. I’d better get up and get through my mail. Maybe something there will indicate what I’m supposed to do.” Adrian made to flip some of the furs that were piled on top of him off, but Kade grabbed him tight and pulled him into a kiss. “No, don’t go.” Kade reached under the covers and grabbed Adrian, who was now stiff with anticipation. “There’s nothing interesting in the mail. I went through it in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. We have all morning.” Adrian wasn’t exactly pleased that Kade had done so, but snooping and thieving were habits of his partner. “You know that you’re privy to any information that you want, right? I’ll give you anything.” Kade was stroking him now, and Adrian had rolled over to be on top of the Nabian. They were grinding together, each ready to repeat the deed they had so frequently enjoyed together. “I know exactly what I want,” Kade said breathily. Try as he might, Adrian couldn’t shake duty out of his head. “What did I have? Anything important?” Kade frowned, and stopped stroking Adrian under the blankets. “Not much really. You had a letter from Luca.” “Ah.” Adrian felt awkward at that, as Kade had been second pick to the Ironian. “Don’t be awkward,” said Kade with a smile. “It’s no big deal.” Adrian did relax some, but was still uncomfortable. He felt lucky that Kade didn’t seem to have much of a jealous streak, and had always handled conversations involving Luca well. “What did it say?” “It was basically an apology. I felt bad after realizing that it was more personal, and meant for you alone. But I think you should read it.” “Okay, I will. But not right now. I have other things on my mind.” Kade’s wicked grin returned at that. “Yeah? Good.” Adrian began to kiss the side of Kade’s neck, where there were already blooming red and purple marks in various states of fading. Kade let out a soft moan, and wrapped his legs around Adrian’s back. “Anything else?” Adrian asked in between kisses. “Just the usual. Reports and trade agreements and such. Some trade routes were highlighted by the Tomacian crown. Oh, and some guy named Chamberlin wrote you. That was the only anomaly, but it didn’t seem important.” Adrian stopped at that, and pulled away. “Chamberlin? Brian Chamberlin?” “Yeah. He just went on about how General Clarion needed to be targeted, and that he was the source of the world’s problems. As if everyone didn’t already know that.” Adrian froze, realizing what the letter had meant. To Kade, it just sounded like affirmation of a common enemy in Alexandre’s uprising. To Adrian, who knew better, it pinpointed Yago as the problem that he had been asked to take care of. “What?” asked Kade at Adrian’s pause, now looking concerned. “Brian Chamberlin is a Tomacian that’s in the Order. He’s just told me what I’m supposed to be doing.” “Oh… I… wow. I can’t believe I didn’t pick that up.” “You wouldn’t have known,” Adrian replied. The pieces began to fall into place, and Adrian gradually understood that the Order, despite seeming to have messy communications, was indicating that Yago Clarion was an enabler of whatever malady they were fighting. “The trade routes from Richard and Carmine – were they in Nabius mostly?” “I think so. Mostly along the Pike.” “I see.” Adrian got out of the bed then, walking briskly across the room in all his nakedness. He approached the desk, and began sifting through mail. From the bed, Kade appeared to catch up as well. “Yago Clarion is involved with the blight you’ve been asked to help with somehow?” “It would seem so.” “And the trade routes highlighted – they’re involved. They’re spreading it, maybe?” “That’s my guess as well,” Adrian nodded. “Possibly intentionally. Maybe Clarion is trying to fight the war with sickness as a weapon.” “I wouldn’t put it past him,” Kade said drily. “And...” he continued, “if that’s true, your Order wants you to take out the traders on those routes.” Adrian paused again, having not made that connection. “What? Attack? What makes you say that?” “I think Chamberlin pretty much explicitly mentioned you attacking. I thought it was just another sycophant trying to show alignment with you, asking but not really asking for you to join his cause.” “Oh.” “But now that I think about it, you’ve said yourself that the main thing you offer is naval artillery. Traders along the Pike? I’m pretty sure that this ship could blow all of the cargo carriers there out of the water.” Adrian knew that he was probably right. “That makes sense. So I guess we sail over that way and head up the river to inspect ships there.” Adrian thought to the attack on the docks in Laura Nandra’s territory, and was even more confident that this was the answer he had been waiting for. “I’m glad you went through my stuff and told me,” Adrian said. There was an ‘even though you’re not supposed to do that’ that hung unspoken in the air afterwards. “Hey, old habits die hard,” Kade said with a shrug. “Remember, I used to be in the academy for thievery and smuggling.” Adrian froze once more, another link forming in his mind. Yago Clarion is the problem. The blight, the war, and Kade’s family. I don’t have to pick between goals. “What did you just say?” “I… was in the academy?” Kade repeated, unsure of himself. “No, the other thing.” “I was learning smuggling and thievery?” “Yeah, that’s it.” “You knew that already.” Ideas raced rapidly through Adrian’s mind, and he formed a plan pretty quickly. The Di Coteaus have so much to teach me still. “Kade, you’re a fucking genius.” Kade looked puzzled still, but Adrian didn’t bother to explain. He began rifling through papers, and found a blank sheet on which to address a note to Luca. “I don’t know about that,” Kade replied from the bed. “But I am pretty genius at fucking, if that’s what you mean,” he said with a wink. Adrian went hard again, but pulled his mind from those thoughts to focus. “I’ve got an idea, and I think that you can help me.”
  9. VVesley

    Chapter 11

    Thanks for another great story @Ethan! I love reading your writing - I hope to see you publishing again sometime soon!
  10. VVesley

    Chapter 21

    Indeed indeed! He's a true Nabian - survival of the fittest to the extreme. Well, his version of 'fitness' anyway. Thank you for reading and for the comment!
  11. VVesley

    Chapter 21

    It had taken over a week, but the full might of Nabius had finally reached their southern destination. Tomacian troops were interspersed with Nabian resistance, and they marched as if they were one army. Fewer and fewer squabbles had occurred between the two nations as time went on, and a record few fights had occurred during the journey to Yago Clarion’s territory. Alex could sense what hung in the air – there was a finality to this march, a strong sense that the fates of too many would be sealed soon. When death hung above them in the air, soldiers did not have appetites for the pettiness of nationalism. They were all in this together, and they knew it. Alex sighed, sitting up and knocking on the wood of his carriage. He was tired of being carried everywhere, and wanted to stretch his legs for a few minutes. More than that, he felt that he was sending the wrong message. Alexandre was a symbol now, and it would not do to be hoisted around on the backs of others all day. Carl had reassured him that the soldiers would understand due to his injuries, but it was too difficult for Alex to swallow. When the carriage stopped, Alex groaned quietly as he pained himself to open the door. As soon as the wood creaked open, Alexandre was greeted with a glaring Carl that had his arms crossed in front of his chest. He was blocking the way out, and Alex was almost reminded of a stubborn child. It is endearing, I suppose. He’s cute when he gets like this. “No,” Carl said firmly. “You need to stop pushing it.” “I’m fine,” Alex said as he waved a hand in the air dismissively. He knew that he was still looking pale, and hoped that Carl wouldn’t notice the sheen of cold sweat on his forehead. “Let me walk a bit. People need to see me up and about.” “People absolutely do not need to see you walking around. You’re still way too early in the recovery process for this! You shouldn’t have even come down here.” “You know I need to be here.” Carl frowned harder, if that was possible, and Alex tried not to get annoyed. Whether Alex should leave the capital and try to recover was a topic of recent contention between them, though Alexandre had eventually won the argument. There was no way that Alexandre could afford to stay behind without a massive hit to his credibility, injured or not. Carl had conceded eventually, pending Alexandre’s agreement to be surrounded by a team of medics. That had eventually been argued down to just one, citing the needs of other soldiers on the battlefield, but Alex knew that his husband still wasn’t happy. “Now move.” “Stay in the transport,” Carl commanded. “We’re only a short way from our tent. You can sit still for that long at least.” “If we’re only a short ways away, it would be good for me to walk. That’s part of the healing process, you know.” “Not when you’re in danger of your stomach opening back up it’s not!” “Just help me down,” Alex said as he began to climb out of the carriage. People were rushing by in all directions at the camp, and despite their business Alex could tell that they were noticing him. They tried to observe inconspicuously, but Alex could tell that there were several eyes on him. He practically fell out of the carriage, but thankfully Carl was there to support him. The taller man could easily support Alexandre’s weight, and one arm around his shoulders and under the arm held the general up straight. He could barely walk, but Carl did a great job of making it look like Alexandre was vertical. Alex was glad that Carl was only wearing leather at the moment, which was much more comfortable than being held up next to plate. “Stubborn Nabian,” Carl muttered under his breath. Alex smiled, and the pair awkwardly made their way towards their shared quarters. Once they had arrived, Alex felt completely exhausted. A few couriers were standing outside the main tent, rigid with tension as the two most important figures in the rebellion approached. “Speak,” Alex said to the first one. I hope I didn’t sound as weak as I feel. He slumped further against Carl, who flexed a little bit as he supported more weight. I’m going to hear it from him tonight. Alexandre pushing the boundaries way too soon was another common source of arguments, but it was really just because of Carl’s concern. The last few days had been emotional, and Carl had cried when he saw Alexandre wake up for the first time in the capital. Alex had been touched, and was still very much so enamored by his husbands behavior. Even amongst the death in the air, he finds a way to make me feel cared for. The first messenger finished his speech, and Carl gave a reply. Alex hazily realized that he hadn’t listened to a word that had been said, and briefly felt annoyed with himself. It was difficult to focus, but Carl replied and gave what Alexandre assumed would be a reasonable response. When the second began to speak, Alex tried his best to focus. This was a report on current food supply, which was better than expected. Good news. We don’t get much of that these days. Carl dismissed him as well, and they turned to the last of the messengers. This one was dressed differently from the others, and instantly put Alexandre on edge. Her pale skin was covered in tattoos and scars that indicated she came from the provinces, and she simply held out a scroll. It was sealed with a wax emblem, and both men recognized it as Yago’s. “So this is it,” Carl remarked as he used his free hand to take the letter. “Yes,” Alex whispered. The pair had sent one final plea, one last attempt to reconcile with Yago Clarion when they had first arrived and set up camp. They were now just outside his mountain fortress with all of the troops they could muster, their strength eminent and on display. The plea had been simple – Yago should disengage, and simply endorse the peace between Tomacia and Nabius. Alex had asked him to call off the fighting, if nothing but for the sake of family. When Carl opened the seal and unrolled the paper, a single word was scrawled on the middle of the sheet for them to see plainly. No. The courier was fast, but Alex was still faster. Her hand darted out with a shiv that she must have concealed in an excellent hiding space, and went straight for Carl’s neck. Alexandre’s hands shot out and caught her at the risk, stopping the small blade from coming near Carl. In letting go of his support, he fell to the ground and dragged the messenger down with him. She then began to press the knife towards him, but he resisted as best as he could. He was completely sapped, but luckily didn’t have to fight back for long. Strong hands gripped the woman at the back of the neck and at her waist, and Carl lifted her into the air over his head. Away from Alex, he threw her back to the ground with enough force to probably break her back. An instant later, a spear lodged itself in her throat and she was down. Alex thought it may have been Eamon, but he couldn’t really see. As Alexandre’s vision began to blur, he felt Carl’s arms wrap around his shoulder and behind his knees. He was lifted up off the ground, and leaned his head into Carl’s chest. Carl was breathing heavily, and Alexandre knew that it was out of anger. War it is. *** The fighting broke out not long after the attempt on Prince Cathcart’s life. Carl knew that Yago probably hadn’t really sent an assassin, but rather the attempt had come from the messenger herself. Carl didn’t know for sure what kind of subjects Yago had ruled over and raised, but he was certain that this was one territory where the absolute worst traits of Nabians were glorified. The fact that the messenger was from the provinces didn’t matter either. General Clarion was known for having integrated as many of the tribespeople as possible, and maintaining strong relationships with them. Passes through the mountains in Yago’s lands were one of the few ways to reach the provinces without going all the way around, so it made sense that a large portion of the population came from there. It was also apparent from the composition of Yago’s armies – of the troops deployed, it was estimated that a third were of provincial descent rather than Nabian. Carl thought about Alex, who had passed out after the incident. He’s still so weak, so fragile. He had remained asleep for the few hours between when they had first received Yago’s reply and when the first lines had engaged, and Carl had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach over it. He’s fine, he told himself. It was true that Alex had made it through the worst of things, but he was still at great risk of infection, or reopening his wounds. If we make it through all of this just for him to pass of an infection… Carl shook his head, trying to dispel himself of thoughts like that. It was difficult to do, but gave Carl a strong motivation to fight. He needed to protect his partner – protect his life, and love. He hadn’t taken a shift on the front lines yet, but it would becoming soon. Much like Alexandre made sure people saw him exhibiting strength around camp, Carl needed to exhibit strength in the battlefield. But I can’t push myself as hard as he does. Carl could get sloppy when he was too fired up, and he couldn’t afford that at the moment. Were the Cathcart Prince to fall at the same time as General Di Coteau being injured… he didn’t want to think of the repercussions that might have. No, he would push forward and strong, but he would need to be careful. As Carl made his way on horseback towards the easternmost group, he saw provincial tribesmen on both sides of the battle. Ysabel’s armies had arrived, but she herself hadn’t. At first, Carl and other leading officers had been worried that the tribes would refuse to fight against each other. Technically, that was true – but the overall spirit of the idea had been entirely wrong. While the tribespeople avoided fighting each other, they did tear through the other Nabians with a speed and ferocity that was astounding. The way they ripped through enemies and seemed to be faster, stronger, and better equipped to do damage was absurd to the prince. He watched a group engage now, and was disturbed to see just how much damage one tribesman could do if they got on a roll. It reminds me of the Di Coteau demon. Carl had seen Ysabel fight before, and the sporadic movements that she used in tandem with her Nabian training seemed to be on par with what those on the field were doing now. The similarity was unnerving, and Carl was just glad that they had a few of these people on their side. But why had Yago allowed Ysabel to take an army from the provinces? The way she tells it, he practically encouraged her to go there. It doesn’t make sense. He shook his head, not understanding why Yago would have helped to supply his own enemy. It could be Ysabel was his sister, but Yago had proved that family meant nothing to him if Alexandre and Talia were anything to go by. Then again, not a lot about him makes sense. Why not crush us if you had the forces to do so early on? Even now, why send roughly equal amounts of troops to die on the battlefield? It’s almost like he wants as many people to die as possible. He shook his head again, bringing himself clarity and summoning the focus to fight. Carl had asked himself these questions countless times, and pondering them now wouldn’t give him any answers. He slid the visor down on his helm, which locked into place with a soft click. Drawing his broadsword out of its enormous scabbard, he prepared himself. A blue and gold flag shot up into the air, signalling that it was time for two groups to make a switch. Carl kicked his horse into motion, and rode into battle with murderous intent. *** Nighttime was normally beautiful in the south at this time of year, but Eamon wasn’t really able to truly enjoy it. The cool evening air was a nice reprieve from the heat of the day, but Eamon felt that it only served to fend off the worst of the camp smells. Not that they were too terrible to begin with, though. Alex runs a tight camp, and Carl is just as keen on order. The worst of the smells come from the battlefield. That’s the part that you’re never prepared for… how bad death stinks. “Hey,” said a small voice to his right. Eamon had heard that he was being creeped up on a while ago, but let his boyfriend think he had approached stealthily. “Hey yourself,” he said with a smile. Eamon reached out and pulled Luca into him, planting a big kiss right on his lips. They were out in public, outside of Alexandre and Carl’s tent. Alex was still inside sleeping, and Eamon was posted outside. “Gods Eamon,” Luca whispered as he backed away slightly and began to smooth out his shirt. “There’s so many people around, and you’re still on duty!” His reprimand wasn’t serious, and Eamon could tell by his voice that he was suppressing a grin. He’s probably flushing red too. I love when he’s embarrassed. I’d give anything to see it again. “Don’t be sheepish – everyone knows about us. Besides, there are plenty of guards around, and hardly anyone approaches this tent.” “Still. We can at least try to be proper.” “Look who’s harping about decorum now? You weren’t so proper last night in the caravan on the way here. I bet every rider around heard your moans and – “ “SHHHHHHHHHhHH be quiet be quiet,” said Luca frantically as he put a hand over Eamon’s mouth. Eamon broke into a huge grin with the younger man’s hands pressed against his lips, and he gave a quick peck to one of Luca’s palms. “No need to be embarrassed,” he teased. “It’s difficult to avoid when you’re with someone who’s so embarrassing,” Luca retorted. Eamon just continued to grin goofily, and Luca sighed. “How’s he doing?” he asked, turning the conversation to a more serious topic. Eamon knew that he was referring to Alexandre, who was in the tent behind them. Eamon had been assigned to guard duty citing his blindness. He was still quite capable, but the chaos of battle would likely overwhelm his ability to orient himself in relation to others, which would impair his ability to fight. Luca had also preferred this, and had used what authority that he had to keep Eamon close. Because they arrived a few days later than the bulk of the army, it was also easier to fit him in in a less conspicuous role. “Alright I guess. Pushing too hard still, but alright. He woke up when Carl switched in on the front lines and asked for constant updates, but other than that he’s been resting. Or at least, I hope he’s been resting.” “I hope so too,” Luca said thoughtfully. “Did you find anything out yet? About the other thing that I asked you?” Eamon had asked Luca about something that had been bothering him, something that he only noticed because of a heightened sense of smell. “I did,” Luca said quietly. “It seems you were right. The tribespeople are collecting the bodies from battle again. They’re expending a large amount of their force to recover the corpses.” Eamon sighed. “I don’t understand. It seems like a lot of work just to hold funerals. General Clarion doesn’t seem like the type to place emphasis on honoring the dead.” “I agree,” Luca said, “but there’s more.” “What?” “They’re collecting the bodies of our soldiers too. They seem indiscriminate – half of the army on the field is just there to retrieve corpses.” “What? Why would they waste so much energy for that?” “I don’t know.” “It makes no sense.” “I know. It really doesn’t.” *** Talia watched quietly as the last member for the feast was escorted into Yago’s main hall, and seated at the long wooden dining table that had been brought there to fill the space. She was restrained by razor wire, which had already opened raw wounds on her wrists. She had been struggling against chains, but the wire was more difficult to fight. If she moved too suddenly or pulled too hard against her restraints, the metal cord would slice into her skin with ease. Talia suspected it was laced with something, as the cuts she had burned beyond the sting of what a normal cut usually provided. Each time she faltered, it felt like liquid fire had been poured into her veins. “What is the meaning of this?” an outraged Fran La Croix shouted. She was being pushed in by two of Yago’s guard, restrained behind her back. When she was thrown abruptly into a chair at the table and two men began to tie rope around her torso, she looked aghast. “How dare you?” she said to one of the two tribespeople confining her. “Ah, General La Croix,” came Yago’s silken voice. The demon inside Talia raged, but she fought against it and managed not to damage herself against her ties. “So nice of you to join us.” “What are you doing Yago?” shot back La Croix. “This is an outrage.” “No, dear,” cooed Yago, “I’m sure you’ll understand soon. Tonight is a night of transformation.” “What do you mean?” the elderly woman asked. “Why am I tied to a chair? I swear, if you mean to execute your allies in this – “ “Relax,” Yago said smoothly. “I intend to do quite the opposite, actually. The people gathered around this table will be reborn, as a matter of fact.” “Reborn?” asked another voice at the table. “What are you on about? This is a waste of time.” Talia flicked her eyes over to Dmitri Orr, and her blood boiled hot. The last time she had seen him, he had removed one of her fingers. “Dmitri?” asked Fran La Croix. She looked as if she were about to ask what he was doing there, but instead looked around the table. Talia knew who most of the people seated were, either by looks alone or from personal experience. Gathered there today were the highest officials in all of Nabius – those who were left, anyway. Three Generals were in attendance. Fran La Croix, Dmitri Orr, and Damien Di Coteau had all been ushered to the table, and similarly tied up. Around them were counts and nobles from all over, and Talia had seen them arrive slowly over the course of about an hour. It appeared that General La Croix had just noticed that she was in the presence of the top minds of Nabian leadership, and anger began to build more and more. “A coup?! You slimy fucking rat!” As she shouted, a lock of her normally tied back white hair fell in front of her face in an undignified way. Talia couldn’t help but notice how old she looked and sounded. “I’m going to – “ “Shut your mouth, Fran,” said Yago with a lazy flick of a gloved hand. Talia caught glimpse of a glint of silver streak through the air before it struck General La Croix in the face, just above the righthand corner of her mouth. The needle there was so small that Talia could barely see it from where she was sitting. It didn’t take long for it’s intended purpose to show, when General La Croix’s angry shouting devolved into incoherent slurring. A paralytic. When the General made a horrified face and lost most control of her facial muscles, Yago carried on. “As I was saying,” he said while standing up and moving towards the table, “a rebirth, yes. This is not a coup – I have no interest in your lands or armies. Nor is this a waste of time,” he said with a pointed look at General Orr. “Then please explain,” General Orr retorted dryly. Talia had heard the explanation before, but listened more intently this time to see if the delivery would be any different. He is addressing generals, after all. Talia listened, and Yago went into a familiar speech. Of all the ‘transformations’ that she had witnessed, this one seemed to have the most passionate delivery. Yago went on about ancient knowledge from the provincial tribes, and gaining abilities from feasting on ritualized flesh. He commented that he and his sister had risen to the top of the Nabian world by using this technique, but neglected to mention that about half of those who partake in the ritual die from it. Talia would have said something, but she hadn’t had full control of her own mouth and body for days now. She also didn’t really care of the people at the table died, so she preferred to watch and see how they took the news. After a long silence, Orr spoke up again. “So… your grand plan… is to make us eat a meal?” Yago raised a finger at some servants, who began setting dishes in front of the guests at the table. “A bit reductionist, but you’re quite right, General.” Orr rolled his eyes, then closed them and appeared to try to calm himself. “What a waste of fucking time.” Yago’s face darkened at that, but he said nothing. When General Orr opened his eyes and saw the plate before him, he looked disgusted. “Dear gods,” he breathed. “You’ve gone mad.” Talia couldn’t quite see from where she was, but she assumed that Orr had recognized the dish as human. “Never been more lucid, actually,” Yago replied. “Religious cannibalism? Yago, you can’t be serious. Tell me this is a sick practical joke.” “I’m completely serious,” the general replied. “What you have before you is – “ “An abomination,” Orr cut him off. “Damien, surely you don’t stand for this too?” The Di Coteau general gave a noncommittal shrug, eyes still cast down. He barely seemed to be present at the meal, eyes glazed over and a deep depression coloring his body language. “You’ll have to forgive Damien,” Yago said. “He’s received some troubling news about his daughter.” Damien fliched, but went back to being quiet. “As I was saying, what you have before you is a specialty dish. It’s not easy for the tribes to have success in preparing such fine sustenance. It sometimes takes multiple bodies to find the right cut that will also imbue power.” “Yago, this is a monstrosity. I’m not some fucking illiterate savage that lives in the mud and can’t tell right from wrong!” Talia wanted to scoff at that, but remained still while observing. “You’ve lost your mind!” “No,” Yago said quietly, “this world has lost its mind. Lost its course, really. Perhaps what you need is a demonstration.” Yago beckoned at a servant, who held a ladle of the dish that was set before Fran La Croix up to the General’s mouth. La Croix resisted at first, but the servant’s strong hands on the older woman’s face held her head back, and she was forced to swallow a heaping gulp of whatever the dish was. Some of it splattered around her face and out of her nose while she struggled, but eventually it went down. Two people to either side of her were subjected to the same treatment, and all three were wild-eyed at having been forced into the ritual. While this was happening, Yago continued talking. “Once you and everyone at this table is turned, the Nabian leadership will be undeniably stronger. You’ll see soon – those who ingest do become stronger. I’m only trying to help you.” “If you were trying to help, why are we all tied to chairs?” Yago shrugged at that. “It’s usually best for those who undergo the change to be tied down at first. The effects can be… unpredictable.” Just then, the three people that had been fed began to react. One man stood up on his legs, holding the chair that he was tied to behind him, and swung it by spinning his entire body in a circle. The legs of the chair hit the nearest servant in the legs, and brought her to her knees. With her at a height disadvantage, he launched himself at her face first and bit at her face and neck. She held him off long enough for two other servants to grab him from behind, and they carried him and his chair out of the room while he thrashed and screamed. Yago smiled at that, and turned his attention to Fran La Croix and the other count beside her. Talia could tell what was coming for them. Both began to violently shake, and pink spittle foamed out of their mouths. It only took a few minutes before they both passed. “Ah well,” Yago said dismissively as their heads dropped onto the surface of the table. “They were both too old anyway.” “What… just happened?” General Orr asked, his face in shock. “Did you poison her?” “No,” Yago said flatly. “Occasionally, that happens. Only the weak die to the disease – the strong are enhanced. Strength, speed, vision, and aggression are dramatically increased in those who undergo the ritual and make it out alive.” Even Damien was now paying attention, and the rest of the nobility seated at the table sat still. The tension in the room was overwhelming, and the air felt thick. “He looked deranged. He looked – “ “Like the Di Coteau demon, perhaps? Or maybe myself? I know you’ve seen my sister and I both fight before.” Orr looked contemplative at that, and Talia knew that Orr knew Yago was right. She had experienced the transformation herself, and had barely been able to hold the madness off for the past few weeks. A long silence went by, before Damien spoke up. His voice was raw, and grief was written all over his face. He’s broken. Talia was glad that Jezebel was dead, but still felt a small twinge of pity for her uncle. For all his incompetency, he at least loved his daughter. “Why now? Why didn’t you bring us this option before?” Orr had spoken again, seeming to get over most of the initial shock. “Even if it is… distasteful.” “An excellent question,” Yago said with a smile. “You’re quite right – we shouldn’t have waited. But bringing this world a new order took time to orchestrate, and a few third-party groups have caused me delays.” Third parties? “But now, my nephew’s rebellion has given me the perfect chance to remold the world. He supplies me with constant warfare, which in turn supplies the tribe with bodies. They ritualize the meat, and the supply chains I’ve spent years building distribute it. At this rate, it won’t take long for the entire world to be reborn.” Oh saints. All at once, the pieces fell into place for Talia. That’s the reason he never joined in. Apparently, Orr made the same conclusion as Talia at the same time. “You never helped the others out because you wanted even matches. Even now, with enough force to overwhelm Alexandre’s armies, you only match their strength. Is that why you’ve refused to help?” “Maximum carnage,” Yago said with a shrug, “means maximum product.” “You bastard!” While Orr fumed about that, Talia’s mind thought further out. If he’s matching fights to get as much tainted food as possible, and plans to distribute it… “What about the soldiers that have died? You could have spared them!” Orr spat. “A war can be a nice cull too. Those who don’t survive the rebellion don’t deserve a place in my new world anyway. If they can’t last in a fight, they probably can’t get through the transformation.” All around the table nobles were forced to begin eating. Orr had now begun screaming profanities at Yago. … the change kills as many as it turns. If everyone’s food supply is tainted… half the population will die. “The strongest of the strong will rise from the ashes of this time. Surviving the trials of war and then the change will breed only the most powerful Nabius – the most powerful world. We will ascend,” Yago continued, glory in his eyes. No no no, Talia thought. I have to stop him. She chose this moment to unleash what she had been holding back, and let the last barrier topple. Kill them all, she told the demon inside. Her arms wrenched down, freeing her wrists from the razor wire. The skin on her hands had been flayed off by the move, but Talia felt no pain. She darted forward faster than she had ever moved before, and disarmed one of the servants around the table before he had time to react. Wrenching his spear from his hand, she rammed it into his gut and pulled it out just as hard. The spear whipped in the opposite direction in a sweeping arc, opening the neck of the next most near guard. A tribeswoman servant attacked her with a platter, which she blocked with the shaft of her spear. Throwing both improvised weapons to the side, Talia knocked the woman’s hands free and kicked at the inside of her knee. Buckling that, Talia reached out with one hand on either side of her opponent’s face and twisted. This freed her line towards Yago, and she began running. But when she saw Dmitri Orr’s face observing her, her vision went red. No! Leave him, he doesn’t matter! But it was too late. The demon had seen its next target, and visions of him beating her and removing her finger with one of the daggers that her father had given her flashed in her mind. She had relinquished control. Against her will, she leapt onto the surface of the table, and began her assault. While Orr was tied up, she grabbed a fork and stuck it into him. Then, she grabbed a glass pitcher, smashed it, and shoved the broken end into him. He screamed, and she continued to jam anything sharp that she could find on the table in him. Talia knew that she had no time, and tried desperately to redirect the demon’s wrath. She conjured images of her uncle’s abuse to her and her brother during her childhood. She imagined the rapes, the taunting, and the depraved cruelty that she had been subjected to. Kill. Her head turned to the side, and she ran down the length of the table straight for Yago, who was standing at it’s head. About half of the way there, she tripped, sprawling onto her front and knocking dinnerware around in a cacophony of clatters. Her legs had stopped working. She saw needles protruding from her skin, and knew that she hadn’t even felt them go in. “NO!” she screamed in a voice that was half animal. She let out a roar of frustration, and writhed as much as she could while moaning and cursing as her body began to lose it’s feeling. “You see, Damien?” said Yago, a smirk on his face. “The niece we share has been undergoing her transformation for quite a while. She resisted for an impressively long time, but it looks like she’s coming around. And my, what a show you put on for us Talia.” Talia twitched spastically, despite the paralytic that was coursing through all of her body by now. Damien Di Coteau, one of the remaining two Generals in Nabius that weren’t with Alexandre, simply stared. Eventually two servants picked Talia up off the table, and began ferrying her back towards her restraints. Saints this is bad. Alex needs to know! He needs to be warned. But as she reflected on that while she was carried away, she wondered if a warning would even help. How can you win against someone whose whole goal is fighting? If you fight him, you’re essentially handing him victory. If you don’t fight him, he’ll come and slaughter you anyway. How do you win against someone that achieves their goals no matter what you do?
  12. VVesley

    Chapter 20

    Thank you! As for Marion, she's definitely a rash character - we'll have to see if she's bitten off more than she can chew! Thank you for reading and the comment!
  13. VVesley

    Chapter 20

    Interesting theory! Thank you so much for commenting and reading!
  14. VVesley

    Chapter 20

    Yes indeed! Though if Yago has all of these troops at his command, why not use them until now? I'm impressed that you picked up on Marion's plans - maybe I'm getting too predictable. Thanks so much for reading!!
  15. VVesley

    Chapter 20

    Thank you for reading!
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