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Like a crimson wave, the attacking army pulled back, retreating out of range of the arrows that continued to rain down on them. Watching them go, Captain Del’har began organizing the defenders, taking stock of the wounded and ordering more arrows brought up onto the wall. After settling everything, the tall Wolfkin met with Thorn and the girls in the gatehouse, where they were watching the remains of the Crimson Snake army.

“My lord,” the captain saluted, “we eliminated approximately two hundred of the enemy. We also managed to kill the Crimson Snake leader and a group of five elite guards.”

“What were our losses?” Velin asked from the side, ready to jot down the numbers.

“Two dead, fifteen wounded, Lady Velin.”

“Hmmm, that's not bad.” Thorn turned around to look at Mina. “It seems that you took a bigger chunk out of Angdrin than you realized.”

“No, I don’t think so.” Surprisingly, Mina did not take the credit like she normally would. Her eyes remained fixed on the tent that had been set up outside the pass for the black-armored figure. “My spell did not hit enough of him to be lethal. He should have gotten healing before he died. That black-armored guy must have done something.”

Taken aback by the uncharacteristic seriousness in Mina’s voice, Thorn followed her gaze to the tent.

“Why would someone harm their team…” Thorn’s voice stopped abruptly, but he couldn’t stop his last words from echoing. As the deep voice faded away, the gatehouse grew quiet. “It was a stupid question.” After an awkward moment, Thorn chuckled. He knew exactly why someone would conspire to harm their teammate.

“It is not a stupid question, though it is a bit silly.” Velin walked up next to Thorn, pushing her hair behind her ear. “Rather than ask why, we should ask, ‘for what’ would someone harm an ally. That would undoubtedly depend on who their ally is.”

“Point taken. If Angdrin is a member of Ragnarok, the only person who would be willing to betray him would be someone of equal standing. And, given his pretentious nature, the only people he would consider of equal standing with him would be the other leaders of Ragnarok. That is Ouroboros, isn’t it?”

Hardly able to breathe because of the stifling air that had settled over the gatehouse, Mina poked Thorn in the side with an ice spike.

“We are not your enemies, big guy. You don’t have to crush us,” she complained.

“Hmm? Oh, sorry.” Thorn took a deep breath, and the atmosphere lightened considerably. “I’m not sure why that keeps happening.”

“What are you going to do if it is Ouroboros?” Velin asked, her eyes carefully watching Thorn’s face.

“You know? I don’t know yet. Probably hit him. Maybe a couple times. But I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out when we confirm who that is. Until then, let’s keep defending.”

“Speaking of defending, I have some bad news.” Velin flipped closed her notebook, storing it in her inventory. “It is highly unlikely that we will be able to maintain this sort of kill to death ratio moving forward.”

“Yeah, I’m aware.” Thorn nodded.

“Well, I’m not,” Mina pouted, glaring at Velin and Thorn. “I hate it when you talk in code.”

“No problem, we can dumb it down for you.” Thorn grinned at her and then immediately ducked to avoid an ice spike. Laughing, he explained, “That was an anger fueled attack. No plan, no purpose other than grinding us away. Add to that their lack of ability to get up the wall, and it makes sense that it was so one sided. Maybe if Angdrin and his squad had been able to break through and open the gate it could have worked.”

“Correct. That is the primary method that the Crimson Snakes employ. Angdrin and his team do the heavy lifting while the rest of their forces act as slightly above average fodder,” Velin chipped in.

“Too bad for them, they met us.” Mina gloated, giving Thorn a high five. “But what does that change? We still have a really defensive position.”

“That is true, but if you look out past their camp, you can see they are starting to clear trees.” Thorn pointed toward the entrance to the pass. “Chances are that they are building ladders as we speak. Possibly even siege towers. The next time, their goal will be to move the fight from the bottom of the wall to the top of the wall. Our defenses will not allow them to achieve that goal easily, but if they do, they will have an absolute advantage.

“They not only have a larger number of soldiers than we do, but they have a solid core of players who are better than almost any force we have. Expect the next fight to be bloody and difficult. The only plus side is that it will probably take them at least a day to finish building the siege weapons, which gets us a day closer to our goal. Honestly, as long as we can make it through tomorrow, I think we should be okay.”

“Have you figured out a way to get Ragnarok to back off?” Velin’s normally impassive face lit up.

“Yeah, I think so. It is a bit of a gamble, but I’m pretty sure it should work. We will find out tomorrow night, though, in order for it to work, we need to maintain control of the valley, which means keeping the control point. So, let’s make sure we keep them out.” Taking a deep breath, Thorn had a hard time keeping the smile off his face.

Tomorrow would be the final showdown, the final fight for the valley. If he could keep control of it, he would be paving his path in Nova Terra. If he lost it, everything he had worked for so far would evaporate. “All the cards will be played tomorrow, we will just have to wait and see how they fall. But I’m getting ahead of myself.” With a wave, Thorn left the girls and went to find Elder Havva. There was much to do.

Later that night Thorn stood on the wall with the Elder, the captain, and both girls. He had been trying to explain to Mina why she was not coming with him to raid the enemy camp.

“Mina, you are not stealth based.” His attempts were not going well.

“Oh, like you are? Look Velin, it is a super sneaky giant. Don’t worry, if he just stands still people will mistake him for a tree on account of his giant head. He can blend right into the forest.”

“Mina, Thorn is in charge, so if he says you are not going, then you are not going.” Velin did her best to keep the corners of her lips from curving up.

“Mina, I need you here so you can help me get back into the citadel without having to open the gate. I’ll need you to create stairs or something for me to climb. This is serious, so stop messing around. If you can’t do it, then I’ll come up with a different plan.”

“But why does Velin get to go?”

“So I don’t die. You will see plenty of action tomorrow, but right now I need you to follow directions.”

“I…” Thorn was trying to be as patient as possible, but the rough edge of his annoyance must have peeked through his slow speech because the response on Mina’s lips died out, and she looked away. “Fine, I’ll stay here.”

“Thank you.” Thorn rubbed the bridge of his nose as he thought through the plan. “Velin, you’re with me. We might need to make a quick getaway, so my apologies if I pick you up without your permission. Captain, you are in charge of the wall until I get back. If something goes wrong and I don’t make it back, hold for as long as you can. Alright. Lets go.”

Grabbing the slim elf around the waist, Thorn placed a hand on the edge of the wall and casually hopped over the edge. Keeping his grip on the wall, he waited until he was hanging fully before he let go, sliding down a few feet and then pushing off to land on the ground. As he put Velin down, he couldn’t help but wonder if he would be able to completely encircle her waist with two hands. Shaking away the errant thoughts, Thorn walked toward the Crimson Snake camp.

From the flurry of action at the camp, it was obvious that the sentries on night watch spotted him. The flurry of activity only expanded when Thorn unrolled a giant white cloth, waving it above his head. Soon, a couple hundred Crimson Snake soldiers and players had circled him, holding weapons. Thorn was amused to see that they stood at least thirty feet away, well out of reach, and even maintained that distance as he advanced.

Holding the white cloth, Thorn strode toward the Crimson Snake camp, just slow enough that Velin did not have to run to keep up. The jostling crowd of players and natives that surrounded them struggled slightly to maintain the proper distance from him as he moved, causing him to smile. By the time they arrived, most of the camp had been woken up and was gathered to watch as Thorn and Velin entered.

“Hold. Are you here to surrender?” One of the Blood Guard held out his hand for Thorn and Velin to stop.

“I would like to speak to your leader. Please take me to them.” Thorn made no effort to control the volume of his voice, and his deep rumble woke those who had not yet gotten up.

“There is no…”

“Take me to your leader.” The full weight of Thorn’s presence fell on the Blood Guard, causing him to shrink back slightly, his face paling. Before he could fall back more than a step, a hand fell on his shoulder, steadying him. Stepping out of the shadows, the black-armored figure gestured for Thorn and Velin to follow and made their way to the tent in the center of the camp.

“Be careful,” Velin whispered as she watched the figure in front of them, a note of fear in her voice. “I’m almost 100% certain that is Ouroboros. His quad category class is incredibly powerful. We need to avoid a direct fight if possible.”

“Relax, we are just here for a chat.”

“I’m just afraid that we will not be the ones deciding that soon.”

A crimson tent sat in the center of the Crimson Snake camp. The golden symbol of the Crimson Snakes adorned the tent flaps, but it was two Blood Guard players who stood outside guarding the entrance. Not bothering to see if they followed, the black-armored figure walked inside. Ducking to follow them into the tent, Thorn was surprised to see how comfortably furnished the tent was. Much larger on the inside than the outside, the tent was divided into multiple richly furnished rooms.

A thick carpet covered the floor of the tent and elegant furniture dotted the main room. A large, throne-like chair with the symbol of the Crimson Snakes carved into the back dominated the far end of the room, and the black-armored figure walked toward it, taking off their helmet and tossing it onto a small table. Sitting down, Ouroboros stared at Thorn and Velin, his face glum.

“Please, have a seat.” Sighing, he rubbed his face, as if he could rub away his frustration. “Would you like anything to eat or drink? I believe there is some wine around here somewhere.”

“No, thanks. And it may be better for your furniture if I stay standing.” Thorn chuckled.

“Eh, suit yourself. It isn’t my furniture.” Ouroboros shrugged. “If you are not here for a drink, what are you here for? Only a fool would believe that you are going to surrender, but only a fool would walk into their enemy’s camp alone. So I have to admit, I’m at a loss as to what to think about you.”

“Haha, that is a pretty fair assessment.” Nodding, Thorn examined Ouroboros closely. He had been torn about how he would feel facing the person who had orchestrated his betrayal, but he found that he had been entirely wrong. Thorn had been sure that he would have trouble controlling his anger when he finally met up with Ouroboros, but that did not prove to be the case. The anger was still there, but it was slow, deep and burning. Instead, Thorn felt a strange apathy, as if Ouroboros was a stranger.

“Look, I don’t mean to suggest that we have to be enemies, but it would certainly seem like we have fallen on opposite sides in this conflict.” On the large chair, Ouroboros leaned back, one of his fingers tapping his armrest. “I took over this operation until Angdrin can return. And it is really hard for me to give up guild business like this. Why don’t we work something out that will work for both of us? Once everything with the valley is arranged, we could reform the team. I miss playing with all of you.”

“That’s it?” The coldness in Thorn’s heart solidified into ice.

“What else is there?” Ouroboros spread his hands, confused.

“Disappointing.” Somehow, Thorn’s deep voice pierced Ouroboros, causing him to lower his hands, a flash of desolation crossing his eyes. His hands dropped to grip his armrests tightly, opening his mouth as if he was going to say something. Seeing his hesitation, Thorn suddenly felt a wave of fatigue wash over his soul. Shaking his head, Thorn spoke.

“We are here to discuss terms on behalf of Lord Greymane, the Moon Wolf, Lord of Moon Wolf Citadel. And to deliver a present.” All friendliness was gone from Thorn’s voice. “You are to take your army and retreat, as your current actions are unlawful. Per the ancient and just laws of the empire, you have intruded on the sovereign ground of a native race. Withdraw or face the wrath of the empire.

“Penalties range from paying reparations to execution of all participants. If you continue, your full guild will be forfeit. Given your lack of awareness of the laws, we will agree to not pursue any reparations for the damage your army has caused to this point, should you choose to withdraw. If you choose not to withdraw, we will prosecute Ragnarok to the furthest extent of the law.

“You have until nine o’clock tomorrow morning to pull your army back, taking nothing from the land that you did not bring, but removing everything you did. We will welcome a diplomatic group at the beginning of next week, but any other forces will be met with appropriate force. Those are the terms. And this is the present.” Thorn placed the white cloth on the table, covering Ouroboros’ helmet. “Given your history of making the wrong choice, I think it is likely that you will need this.”

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A note from WildCard

Did you know that Book #2 and Book #3 are already finished? If you've enjoyed what you read and are interested in reading more, please consider supporting me at www.patreon.com/SethRing where you can read the rest of Book #2 and all of Book #3. Come explore the world of Nova Terra and help me determine where the story goes.

You can find out more about me at www.sethring.com.


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WildCard

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. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.

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