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Thorn met up with Mina and the Dusk Walker that had accompanied her shortly after he accidentally threw a tree at another Crimson Snake scout, crushing her directly. He had intended to use it as camouflage but had tripped in his rush to hide, dropping the tree and killing the scout. Mina reported that they had discovered and killed an elven scout as well, so the three of them left, traveling back to the citadel.

Without a good way to track the enemy army, they had to rely on their own scouts to detect and report movement. Unsure if their plan to misdirect the enemy had worked, Thorn and Mina arrived at Moon Wolf Citadel and regrouped with Velin, who had been organizing the defenders. Gathering everyone together in front of the fortress, Thorn looked them over.

The Wolfkin who had come down from the mountains numbered three hundred in total. Of those, two hundred were disciples who were trained for combat. Divided into fifty groups of four Wolfkin, the Temple of the Moon disciples looked disciplined and dangerous. Each group contained a member of each court and was led by a dual category Night Walker. While the rest of the disciples were still in training, they were all skilled and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Next to them, attempting to imitate the neat, cohesive appearance of the disciples, stood one hundred and fifty humans in assorted gear. The rag-tag group looked more like bandits than soldiers, though there were a few who were obviously veterans. Armed to the teeth and clad in whatever armor they could scrounge, the Freemen presented a wild and eclectic look. The only thing uniform about them was the longbow that each carried on their back. Six feet long and made of a variety of materials, every single bow was well polished by years of use.

The last group was composed of the hunters from Greymane Village who had doubled as guards. With the influx of new settlers over the last few days, the group had grown to almost four hundred. However, as Thorn looked them over, he could not help but give a mental sigh. Even more poorly equipped than the Freemen, the village guards barely had a single weapon each.

The Crimson Snake scouts that Thorn had killed had been dressed in full leather armor, armed with bows, swords, and knives, every weapon shiny and like new. Undoubtedly, the army that followed behind them was similarly well-equipped. The difference between the two forces was almost laughable, though Thorn was in no mood to laugh at this point.

Had he not built Moon Wolf Citadel, the Crimson Snakes would have undoubtedly crushed their defenses without any trouble. As it was, the large walls should give them pause, though Thorn had no real hope that it would stop them. With another sigh, Thorn tossed aside his concerns and started to organize his troops.

The attacking force was, at last estimation, 1500 players and natives. Considering that the pass was being guarded by half that number, Thorn knew that they were in for a tough fight. Thankfully, the walls compensated for their deficiency in numbers. In the coming battle, the attacking force would be the one compelled into action, while Thorn’s force could simply wait behind their large walls.

“My lord, what are your commands?” Captain Del’har saluted, bringing Thorn’s wandering mind back to the present.

“How would you arrange them, captain?” If Thorn had not been watching closely, he would have missed the sliver of disappointment that flashed across the Wolfkin captain’s eyes.

“The most common tactic would be to use the hunter units to clog the top of the wall during the assault while the Freemen and disciples are held back as a counter strike.”

“Hm. Casualties will be too high that way.” Thorn shook his head, immediately rejecting that idea. “Let’s split the hunters into two groups. Get one group to cut long poles with forks on the end. Make them seven to eight feet long. The second group is to build some simple shields. Six feet high, four feet across. They’ll need six foot poles as well. Two per board.

“They’ll hold the wall in rotations along with the Freemen. Our armory is well stocked, so send them over to find armor and weapons. I’ve ordered extra arrows that we’ll need to put out on the wall as well. Hopefully our diversionary tactic will give us a few more hours. We don’t have long, so we should get to work. Oh, and send the leaders of the Night Walkers to talk to me.”

“Yes, my lord!” Executing another crisp salute, the captain whirled around and began barking orders, sending the army into a flurry of action. The Freemen began transporting bundles of arrows from the sub-level up to the wall, placing the stacks five feet apart the whole length of the wall.

Imbued with a sense of urgency by the captain’s commands, half of the hunters from Greymane village rushed out of the Citadel to cut long poles from the forest while the other half began to hammer together simple plank platforms. After setting the two human groups into motion, the captain called over the leaders of the temple forces, meeting Thorn at the gatehouse.

“Hello, everyone.” Thorn looked up from the map he was studying. “Please rise. We don’t have a lot of time, so I am going to keep this really short. The main bulk of the fighting on the wall will be handled by the Freemen and the hunters. That said, I’m going to be putting a lot of weight on your shoulders. The Dusk Court has already been deployed, feeding us information about what the enemy is up to. They’ve been given strict orders to retreat before the enemy arrives, so I expect most of them will rejoin us.

“Once they come back, I’ll be deploying the Dusk Court in the towers. Disciples of the Dawn Court will be joining me atop the wall. You will be responsible for passing my orders among the army and maintaining morale. Remember that your fellow fighters are not trained combatants, so pay close attention to anyone who is starting to panic. You’ll be responsible for determining when the Freemen and hunters rotate off the wall.

“The Full Moon Court will be held in reserve in two groups. You can decide how you split, just try to make it even. You’ll be stationed here in the gatehouse and will be responsible for clearing the wall if the enemy makes it up. You will also be the first line of defense should the gate be breached.” Pausing for a moment, Thorn looked over the determined faces of his subordinates. The thought that some of them might not live past the coming battle was beginning to weigh on him. With a deep breath, Thorn pushed the feeling aside and turned to the last group.

“Those in the New Moon Court will have the most difficult job. We will be using the beheading strategy, aiming to kill as many of the enemy officers as we can, specifically targeting the native officers. Don’t bother with the travelers initially, we want to cripple the enemy’s native support as much as possible. I want to split you into three units. Two groups will leave the citadel before the enemy arrives. If the chance presents itself, I’ll give a signal, and they’ll assault the enemy headquarters, aiming to take the heads of the enemy generals and destroy any supplies the enemy camp has. The last group will stay in the citadel and will ambush any leaders that come to fight against me or any of our other leaders.”

After talking through the details of their deployment, the Wolfkin left the gatehouse to organize themselves, leaving Captain Del’har, Velin, and Thorn alone above the gate. Mina had run off with Akira to supervise the hunters who were cutting the long poles. Seeing Thorn’s furrowed brow, Velin started to pat his shoulder and then hesitated, her hand hovering in the air for a moment before it dropped back to her side.

“What are you worrying about?” she asked instead.

“This is going to be tough. The wall is a huge advantage, since they are not expecting it. In fact, I think surprise is our biggest advantage. My main concern is how to delay them. We need to hold out for three days, but I’m worried that we are not going to be able to survive a direct confrontation.”

“Correct. To breach the walls or the gate, the Crimson Snakes will need to build ladders or a siege tower.” Velin nodded, pointing at the forest outside the pass. “They have ample supplies as well, so I don’t expect it to take more than a day for them to construct something. We can use the poles to deal with the ladders, but siege towers will be a problem.”

“We will just have to do our best.” Thorn felt more and more was slipping from his control, a feeling he did not like.

“My lord, the scouts are back,” Captain Del’har spoke in a low voice.

Striding over to the parapet, Thorn looked out over the entrance to the pass. Rushing from the forest, the sixteen Dusk Walkers that had been deployed to track the enemy army headed directly for the front gate. The Wolfkin were naturally tall and lean in form, making them suited to cross distances quickly, but this was the first time Thorn had seen them actually moving that fast. In the time it took him to arrive at the edge of the wall, they had already crossed half the distance to the citadel.

One side of the massive gate opened a crack, just enough for the Dusk Walkers to slip inside. Captain Del’har had hurried down to meet the scouts and soon returned with the two scouts that Thorn had worked with when he and Mina had gone to try and distract the enemy army.

“My lord.” The Dusk Walkers saluted, their hands over their chests.

“I’m glad to see that everyone made it back.” Thorn smiled warmly at them, equally happy to see that they followed his directions to retreat. “What did you find out?”

“The enemy is still progressing toward the southeast, though I expect that they will turn back toward this direction within half a day.”

“When should we expect them to arrive?”

“A conservative estimate would be within four hours. However, the army moves much slower than we do, so there is a chance that it will take them longer.”

“Let’s stick with the conservative estimate. Captain, please pass the word that we are to be finished with preparation within three hours. Actually, the sooner the better. I want everyone to be in place within the hour. Organize a squad of hunters to pass food out to everyone at their stations.”

“Yes, my lord.” With a crisp salute, the tall Wolfkin officer bounded out of the gatehouse to give his orders.

“What else did you find?”

“The closest count we could get of the enemy army was around 1700, sir. The first fifteen hundred were as we expected. We counted 250 travelers with the Crimson Snake guild symbol, 250 other travelers who looked like guards, and 1000 native soldiers, with standard equipment. In addition, there were 200 other travelers, who wore a different symbol.” The Dusk Walker handed over a piece of paper with a sketch of the symbol.

On the paper Thorn saw a snake, drawn in a figure eight, its mouth holding its tail. Through the center of the figure eight was a sword, its pommel shaped like a dragon’s claw. Handing the sketch to Velin, Thorn raised his eyebrows.

“Blood Guard,” the slim elf said quietly.

“Ouroboros’ group? Why would they be here? Didn’t you say that his territory is farther south?”

“Yes, he holds the region below this one. I’m not sure why he would have sent soldiers to support Angdrin. As far as I know, they are in direct competition.” Velin pulled her notebook out and started to thumb through it. “Give me a few minutes to think about it.”

“Sure.” Thorn dismissed the scouts after hearing the rest of their report. Once they had left, he leaned on the stone parapet, looking out over the entrance to the pass, a feeling of disquiet bubbling up in his heart. Over the last few weeks, Thorn felt as if he had been barreling along, tossed ever more quickly by the momentum of things outside his control.

As his eye ran over the woods that had been cut back by the hunter squads, he idly wondered if the citadel below him had been a subconscious attempt to place down something immovable. There was so much going on in Nova Terra that it was honestly overwhelming.

“Ah, it is the Wolfkin!”

“Pardon?” Shaken from his musings by Velin’s exclamation, Thorn straightened up and looked at the elf, who was scribbling furiously in her notebook.

“The Blood Guard are here because of the Wolfkin. Ouroboros’ new class is tied to the Wolfkin race, just like your title is. It is highly likely that his advancement requires him to increase the corruption of the race as a whole, since his backer, Karrandras, the Betrayer, has been trying to do that.”

“If that is true, doesn’t that mean that I am destined to have to fight against him?”

“Certainly. Though it would be more accurate to say that you are destined to battle his influence. It looks like you are two sides of a scale, seeking to draw the Wolfkin to your side. He is trying to bring out their bestial nature through the influence of Karrandras, while you are trying to bring out their civilized nature through the influence of Hati.”

“Well, I’d say I’m winning so far.”

“Correct. However, you have yet to face him directly.” Pausing slightly, Velin stared into the distance, as if remembering something difficult.

“Even if I do, I’m confident in my combat ability.”

“I’m not worried about your combat ability.” Velin’s eyes met Thorn’s, taking him aback with their intensity. “However, you will not only be competing to see who has the hardest fist. Your entire being will be weighed against his. Winning this conflict will require you to face off against his charisma, his leadership ability, and his influence.”

“You don’t seem confident in me,” Thorn joked, trying to lighten the mood.

“Thorn, you are a gifted individual, but you are going up against the soon-to-be leader of one of the largest, most influential guilds in the game. It is not a matter of being confident or not. Please understand that I am on your side completely. However, that doesn’t mean that I am going to pretend that you have the advantage in this coming conflict. Ouroboros is smart, careful, an outstanding player, a charismatic leader, and he wields serious influence in this game through his position in Ragnarok. You are in for a difficult fight.”

As Velin talked, Thorn grew quiet, his head bowed. She was right, it was going to be a difficult fight. Yet, was he really that disadvantaged? Slowly, Thorn had begun shedding many of the mental restrictions that he had brought into the game. He had begun to lose some of the social constraints that he had been raised with, shaking himself loose from their hold. More and more, he was feeling comfortable leveraging his advantages without worrying about what was fair.

“It may be difficult, but I will win.” Raising his head, Thorn took a deep breath, his already large form seeming to grow and fill the whole room. “Let them come. What is mine will stay mine, and no matter how impressive Ouroboros is, he will gain nothing more from me.”

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Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.

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