Taking a moment to enjoy the experience, I revelled in the breathtaking view. With a little experimentation, I found that I could control my movements just by willing it. Zooming in all the way to individuals on the streets. Zooming out so far that I could see the entirety of the valley. The parts of it that wasn’t completely covered in the dark fog, that is. It must be the areas I’d never seen. Grey trails were snailing their way across the landscape, indicating places where I’ve been, but no longer have eyes.
Far to the southeast, the river flowing under Lesiraxans tomb entered the valley. Snaking its way south, past the outskirts of the dryads forest, then turning lazily westwards to the plains of the fieldrunners. Finally, it vanished into the fog of war.
To the West were the massive swamps, most of which I’d not seen yet. I’d barely made it a fifth of the way in before falling into the serpent's lair. I briefly wondered what else could be hiding in the desolate wastes.
To the northeast the colours were brighter, with fields of light shifting, cutting through the darkness. Focusing on the area allows me to move towards it, and in moments I have a birds eye view of the front lines against the outside world. Less than a hundred Weke were on my side of the chokepoint, a narrow pass leading into the valley. I looked around for the person in charge, finding her in the middle of the camp. With a little effort I flex my mind, reaching out with my thoughts.
She gasps in alarm, looking around, drawing her sword.
“No, please, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Shae, do you know who I am?”
She speaks out loud, her thoughts muted.
“Focus on my voice, and think your replies to me as clearly as you can. I think that will let me hear you.”
“I .. Yeah, I’ve heard about you. I’ve been told you were trying to craft the crown of the valley. I guess you succeeded? Are the legends true? Can you really see everything?”
“I can see everything that you or any other Weke are looking at. Anyone allied with us, actually. I’m sorry to be so curt, but I need to know. Will you accept my command?”
She considered it for a moment. My fingers crossed, I was hoping the reputation I’d built up over time was enough to convince her.
“Yes. Scragh has spoken to me about you already. He thinks you’re overly sensitive, and prone to tantrums if you don’t get your way. Personally, I think he’s a manchild who prefers ranging in the wild to interacting with other people. I believe you’ve proven your worth. Commander Meknet, at your service.”
A trumpet signals the end of our peaceful chat. A flurry of hairy soldiers start milling about like chickens, creating chaos and disarray in the camp. Without wasting any time, Meknet starts shouting, forging order out of the raw materials available to her. Taking the initiative, I order scouts to move to high positions that are hard to reach, giving them a safe view of the battlefield and the enemy forces. It takes several moments for them to react, having to confirm my orders with their commander first. When they finally obey, I get a live feed of the battlefield.
From the other end of the pass, six figures come into view. Heavily armoured in shiny breastplates, large helmets, greaves, bracers, boots and gauntlets. Large kite shields covering them from enemy fire and vision. Marching in lockstep, they were clearly well disciplined. As I inspect our own forces, I feel pretty confident. In the front, we have light infantry, armed with shortswords. Behind them, scouts with slings. I can see some elites with long spears and thicker armour walking amidst the troops. Relying on my information superiority, I begin arraying the light troops in a double line, ready to meet the attack. Behind them I place the ranged troops, ready to rain stones and debris on our attackers. The elites I hold in reserve, ready to come in and tackle any unforeseen problems.
When the enemies are halfway to our line, they break formation. Half of them plant their shields in the ground, drawing vicious looking flanged maces. The other half take cover behind the large kiteshields, using them to steady heavy crossbows they draw from their backs. Before I can warn my troops, they launch a volley into my ranks. The bolts, travelling right between their comrades, fell three of my infantry as the rest look on in horror. Sensing their trepidation, I call the attack. Slings first, then mass the light troops.
Dozens of bullets fly through the air. They arch gracefully against the sky, perfect parabolic arcs, smacking right into the enemies armour, harmlessly bouncing off. One of my slingmen manage to hit them right between the helmets opening, but it pissed him off more than hurt him. Soon, the enemy reaches our line, and the real carnage begins. With each measured strike they slaughter one of my troops. The type of armour my side is wearing is useless against the heavy maces these soldiers are wielding. Worse than that, the shortswords they’re carrying are next to useless against the steel plates. This is all wrong, I’m not doing enough damage. I’m not doing any! In the welling panic, I can hear Commander Meknet calling out to me.
“Shae, where are you? We need orders, they’re killing us!”
I locate her, standing nearby.
“I don’t know what to do! I thought this would work, but they’re so much better equipped than us.”
I can see in her mind how hard it is for her to resist rolling her eyes at me.
“Don’t blame your tools. They’re stronger than us, but we’re faster, and we have numbers. For now at least. Draw them out. Hide from them in the grass, surround them! The battle line isn’t fixed, so move it. When they’re weak and separated, overwhelm them with our troops. The elites can keep them at bay if necessary. Just do something!”
I swallow, turning around to see the massacre. I’ve lost more than ten Weke so far, and each minute increases the tally. Rousing myself from the pit I’m in, I order my troops to flee into the grass. The enemies look on this new development with a mixture of confusion and uncertainty. After a quick huddle, they decide to follow the largest concentration of fleeing Weke. I have the scouts focus fire on the one furthest back, pelting him with a storm of rocks, drawing his attention away. Lumbering around, he charges at the scouts just as the three crossbowmen fire into them, killing two. The two soldiers together swing wildly into the grass, but with my extended vision, the Weke are able to avoid the swings. Soon, the troops are playing whack a mole with the two remaining infantrymen. The solo soldier finishes off another scout, turning around to search for another target just as two dozen weke come rushing towards him, screaming bloody murder. He stands fast for a moment before losing his balance, overwhelmed by the sheer number. I lose four, three to the crossbowmen, one to the enemy heavy, but I can finally bag a win.
I have the infantry scatter again. My ranks are looking thinner by the moment. 45 light infantry, 8 elites, 20 scouts, dozens dead. I have them focus on the two remaining soldiers in the tall grass. They seem to have caught on to the ruse, rushing to get back to the clearing. I set my elites in their way, six on one, two on the other. I instruct them to interfere without taking any serious risk. Once separated, I focus on taking down one after the other.
I instruct my soldiers to kill one, leaving the other alive and screaming. They make sure he’s unable to warn the others of what’s happening by gagging him with whatever cloth they have at hand. The crossbowmen wait for a moment before they decide to retreat, picking up the secondary shields on their way. I begin cheering to myself, not realising how downbeat everyone else is.
I approach Meknet, hesitating when I see the look on her face. Distress, anger, sadness. I’ve seen it in the mirror often enough.
I begin, tentatively.
The reply felt like a slap more than an acknowledgement. She continued.
“And we lost nearly 40 good men and women in the process. What were you thinking? I thought you knew what you were doing!”
Her voice rose in volume towards the end of the sentence.
“I.. I tried my best. I’ve never commanded an army before. Normally in situations like these, I just mass troops until I can overwhelm the opponent and..”
She snorts in derision.
“Clearly. I’ll let the families involved know about your masterful strategies, shall I? Maybe it’ll make losing their providers and protectors easier, knowing they died for such an excellent strategy. It’ll be a real morale boost.”
“Then what do you want me to do? I’m the only one who can see the entire field and the only one who can communicate over distances. If I don’t give the orders, we’ll be overwhelmed as soon as they get ready with their second wave.”
She closes her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger.
“If you can see all that, and talk to so many, why were you focusing on one and one soldier? Wouldn’t it be a much better idea to instruct your officers? The officers could then apply their training and experience when confronting the enemy. Instead of keeping them back as some sort of shock troop I mean?”
I blink twice.
“Wait, the elites are officers?”
I suffer a reasonable amount of verbal abuse.
After a long and boring conversation about our relationship, we both agree I won’t command troops directly anymore. I’ll help with battlefield intel, communications and any magical power I can provide. My reputation took a hit, but at least they’re still on my side. I coach some of the scouts on how to get my attention when needed, and leave them to their job. Back at Perot's hut, I can’t help but think about how much I love the fast travel aspect of my new abilities. Just a thought, and whoosh, there I am. As I arrive, I see that most of the patients have been checked out, ready for duty. That reminds me, I have another quest to take care of. I gather a bunch of people to do my bidding. Nine guards, three scouts and a large pack of children answer my call, giving me three well balanced teams to go out into the forest in search of the herbs we need.
As I do my work, I notice my mana levels dropping low, just to shoot up right afterwards. Perot is crouching next to my body with an empty bottle in her hand, having just refilled my reserves. If that’s the rate at which we’re burning through potions, I need to accelerate the crafting process somehow.
I’m distracted by Perot trying to grab my attention. I zoom in, focusing my mind on her.
“How can I help you?”
She points to Scragh standing next to her. They’re both hanging out near my body.
“Scragh? What’s up?”
He looks uncomfortable at the thought of having me in his head like this.
“Uh, well, I was talking to Perot, and she thought I should let you know about some special locations around the valley.”
He brings out a rough map of the area, depicting points of interest.
“What do you mean, special locations?”
He flattens the map against the floor, weighing the edges with various items he finds around the room.
“This valley is ancient, and we Weke have been here for a lot of that time. In our expeditions exploring the unknown regions, we’ve often come across areas where the enemies are larger than usual, more aggressively. Each time we tried to explore closer, we’ve been driven back by the monsters. We’ve hypothesized that these are locations of great power. While I don’t know what kind of power it is, I can’t imagine they’d hurt our cause.”
As I look at the map, I feel a change in my interface.
Points of interest have been discovered.
You have discovered an old map.
Your map has been updated.
“Wait, am I supposed to go to these things now? I have to be ready to assist with the defence of the valley. If I enter the overview state while I’m in the field, I’ll be completely defenceless.”
He considers this for a moment, then looks at Perot who nods back.
“We’ll come with you.”
I’m unable to keep the incredulity out of my voice.
“We’ll come with you. Scragh is damaged and I’m not a great fighter, but I can take care of you both when necessary. It’ll be an adventure. Now wake up from your nap and lets get going. No time like the present.”
Zooming out, I have a look at these new locations. I notice most of them are question marks, complete unknowns. There’s one in Reneas forest, around the spot I set fire to. I can also see the forest being a smoldering ruin where I’ve been. The fieldrunner nest and swamp serpents lair were marked as well. Beyond that, there are a couple of ‘Groves’, a ‘pit’, some ‘ruins’, and a ‘mausoleum’ further south. Come to think of it, I like gravesites. The loot I’ve found in those have been good so far, so I decide to go for it. I let the front line know I’ll be harder to reach for a little while, promising to check in every 10 minutes or so, then cut the connection before Meknet has a chance to argue back, releasing the crown interface.
“We’re going to a mausoleum to the south. I’d say about an hours run. Do you have any potions to help your stamina?”
The words are barely out of my mouth before Perot smacks me upside the head. An impressive feat for the diminutive old woman.
“Don’t disrespect your elders, child. I can keep up.”
Scragh suppresses a laugh, grinning from ear to ear. I shoot him a dirty look promising revenge later.
“Why would we go to a mausoleum? Isn’t there more interesting locations we could check out first?”
I shake my head at Scragh.
“Clearly, all the forestwalking has done a number on your head. Think about it, a mausoleum? On the plains? Do you think the fieldrunners built it? Or do you think that maybe something from before the Weke created it. Just imagine the kind of artefacts we can uncover in a place like that.”
I’m talking out of my ass here, but there’s no way for him to realise. Soon, he nods and gets ready to move out.
Once we’re on the road, I realize that by ‘keeping up’, Perot actually meant that she would set the top speed, and we would follow her lead. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad, and we made decent time. Checking in on the front line wasn’t as much of a distraction as I’d feared, and I realise soon that I don’t even need to be in overview mode to be able to communicate with them when I’ve prepared the connection, they just aren’t able to initiate contact. It takes us two hours to get to the place. On the way, we encounter more wildlife than normal. Trying to avoid them, we notice they completely ignore us. Even larger beasts, the ones who are normally quite aggressive just go about their way, looking up at us if we get too close. At one point, a giant shambling tree lumbered past us, rock club in his hand. It glanced at us and continued on it’s path. Afterwards, Scragh swore up and down that it was wearing a hat, and that it tipped it at us. Me and Perot wordlessly decided to ignore him.
As we approached the gravesite, we saw it was composed of a strange amalgamation of styles. In the center, there’s small crypt made from cut and fitted stone, a bit worn, but clearly white with traces of red. On top is a gargoyle, angry and gothic, clashing with the clean lines of the structure itself. Surrounding the structure is a large circle of stones, probably denoting where the hallowed ground begins. The stones are piled haphazardly, more concentrated in some places than others. Inside the circle, the grass is blackened and dead, as if it had been in darkness for years and years. The few trees there are broken, ghostly shapes. Broken tombstones litter the graveyard, some of them overgrown with an ivy I’m pretty sure doesn’t live here, others decorated with white skulls. Not all of them human, it seems. I attempt to read the inscriptions, but it’s nothing but hieroglyphs and nonsense to my eyes. Beyond that, the graveyard was, well, dead. I’d half expected a small army of undead wandering around to get in our way, but nothing stirred.
We gathered around the outer wall in preparation. I checked in with my little army, noting there’d been some enemy scouts spotted, but no further aggression yet. Satisfied, we began investigating the building. The tomb entrance was a large slab of rock. Nothing remained of any opening mechanism as far as we could tell. While I and Scragh started searching the area for something to pry the slaw away with, Perot stayed behind to, as she put it, ‘try something’. Twenty minutes later, we both return empty handed, finding Perot standing in front of a smoking hole in the door. I scratch my head in confusion before venturing a guess.
She nods, a smug half smile on her face.
“I.. I really should have thought of that..”
Carefully bypassing the hissing parts of the stone, we enter the crypt. Immediately, we hear scratching from all around us. Scragh slowly takes out a torch, and I light it with my firestarter. Dozens of pairs of eyes stare back at us from the dark corners of the crypt, and I feel my body tense, ready for combat. A few tense moments are suddenly broken up by a screeching sound and I step back towards the wall as Perot jumps into Scraghs arms. An army of rats flees towards us, running for the exit. Clinging to the wall, I realise that the sea of rodents is passing us by without incident. As Perot, somewhat embarrassed, returns to floor level, we investigate further. There are no windows here, no way for light to enter naturally. The room is smaller than I expected, with room enough for a casket in the middle of the room. The walls are covered in chiseled words that none of us are able to read.
“Last time I saw one of these, I was infested with elemental fleas. Ready to open it up?”
Scragh drew his weapon, a vicious looking blade, curved and gleaming in the firelight. He nods for me to proceed. I sigh.
“What a gentleman.”
I push the lid as hard as I can. Nothing moves. I look more closely at the edges, finding the box sealed with wax. A good sign for loot, bad sign for smells. Slowly, I loosen the lid, working carefully to avoid making a mess in case the contents are under pressure. Sure enough, once I’ve made the rounds once, there’s a soft whump as the lid shifts from the gases trapped within. The smell is pretty innocuous, just dryness and dust. Giving it another try, the lid moves easily now. Inside is the body of a female. As tall as the coffin is long, her sharp features and pointed ears hint at some sort of elven heritage. She’s dressed in a grey gown, a dessicated bouquet of flowers in her arms.
“Like a bride.”
I ignore him. Looking around inside the coffin reveals nothing exciting. She’s barefoot, her hair is well groomed, tied with a silk string. She’s in remarkable condition for someone who must have been here for countless years. Hesitating a moment, I reach for her cheek, then I turn towards the others.
“She’s not cold. Not particularly warm, mind you, but I’d expect her to be at least ambient temperature. I’m not sure what to make of this. There’s no loot here, no trace of the power we expected. I mean, she’s pretty and all, and if this was a horror movie, she’d be getting up to bite me right about now.”
I venture a quick glance behind me. Dead as a doornail. I release a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
“But nothing interesting pops out. Any ideas?”
They look at each other, then back to me. Perot comes closer and starts examining the girl, while Scragh busies himself with checking out the writing on the wall. I sit down in the corner, checking in with the forward company, thinking about options. It takes me a few more moments before I facepalm. As the others look up with worry, I focus on my armband.
“How may I be of assistance?”
His voice is different. Like there’s a second voice superimposed on the normal one. Reneas influence is showing through I guess.
“Hi Eph. Can you make sense of these writings?”
As he looks around, I have Scragh light a torch to illuminate the words.
“It seems to be a text concerning the last heir of the Aurelii. As far as I can tell, they were a great family ages ago, strong in magic but clearly weak in friends. They were betrayed by those they trusted, and chased off into the ephemeral plane. This girl was the only one to survive. As she drifted around the plane, she build this mausoleum from the spirit stuff around her, as a memorial for her family. Then she sacrificed her soul to curse the ones who murdered her kin. A classic case of an eye for an eye leaving everyone blind. People with that kind of magic never simply die, however. Her mind lingered for years without a soul, allowing her time to write all of these texts. Then, when she was finished, she sealed herself into the coffin, where her body has been preserved until now.”
It took me less than a minute to come to the obvious conclusion.
“So.. would this be a suitable vessel for us to place the Dryad queen in?”
Scragh and Perot both looked at me like I’d gone completely insane.
- Stranger in a strange land
Software developer by trade. Games developer by uni course. Shopkeeper in a previous life.. don't ask.
I took a look at my life recently, and realised I read too much. I watch too much tv. I play too many games. I consume too much. It was time for me to create instead, improve the balance of things. So I wrote, and I wrote, and I managed to finish a first draft. Then I went back to the beginning and started rewriting it, while working on the sequel.
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