A high troglodyte sat quietly in front of a pit of fire in a dark stone room. Compared to his calm demeanour, the troglodyte standing next to him was impatiently stamping his foot. The impatient troglodyte tried to cross his arms, but stopped when he remembered that his arm was still wrapped in bandage.

“Kuisotle, your arm hasn’t healed yet?” the sitting troglodyte asked.

“It’s mostly healed. The healers insisted that I keep the bandages on for a bit longer,” Kuisotle replied.

“It’s been a few days already. I am worried about your arm.”

“I thank you for your concern, High Priest Kanotle. Speaking of days, there really hasn’t been any further attacks from the iron monsters for the past few days, huh?” Kuisotle asked.

“I cannot talk about this until Huatotle comes back,” the High Priest replied.

Just as he finished his sentence, a large troglodyte strode into the room in full gear. He sat on a stone chair with a large thud caused by the scraps of scavenged armor which added to his already massive size and weight.

“Can we talk about the iron monsters now?” Kuisotle asked.

“Of course. Huatotle, have you found anything yet?”

Huatotle shook his head, then answered, “The iron monsters remain close to where the main assault base used to be, but they’re not going any further.”

“What’s the matter? Are they scared?” Kuisotle asked. “They used to venture far, no?”

“We really don’t know, but we must remain vigilant nevertheless,” Huatotle replied.

“High Priest, we went all the way here, to Tilapola, expecting a large attack, but nothing came of it. Now what?”

The troglodytes in the room stared at Kanotle. Despite the surprise that the iron monsters didn’t pursue them as expected, he wasn’t at a loss at what to do. They were playing defensive, but they still held the cards against the monsters.

But Kanotle wondered whether those cards would mean anything once the iron monsters return with greater numbers…

“Continue to fortify the passages. Every town except the frontier towns will stay under martial status. I need tilapolas patrolling and scouting the iron monsters at all times,” Kanotle ordered.

“That will be done, High Priest,” Huatotle answered with a bow. “However, should we not be preparing an army to counter the iron monsters?”

Kanotle turned towards the war priest and stared him down. “Perhaps you’ve been at the borders for too long, War Priest. Politics continue to play a game even when the generals are not present at home.”

“How do you mean?” Huatotle asked as he looked back up towards Kanotle.

“There are tilapolas looking to profit from all these distractions, and it will be hard to maintain status quo if we pull everything down. It took a lot of effort to convince the tilapolas to create a sizeable army once, and it will be harder to convince them to create a new army again unless Tilapola itself is threatened.”

“Those dishonorable bastards! Do they not realize the scope of this newly emerged threat?!” Huatotle cursed loudly.

“That’s the point. They might not think this is the end of the world. Perhaps it isn’t. Regardless, the monsters are not moving so we will watch them carefully. It could be possible that this is a new race we could make contact with,” Kanotle said.

“What if we are wrong? What if these are truly demons without souls? You’ve seen what they were capable of,” Huatotle pointed out.

“No. You think we know a lot about these creatures, Huatotle, but you are wrong. We know absolutely nothing about these creatures. It may even be possible to open dialogue with them.”

“Open dialogue?! We-”

“Huatotle, you are tired. Get some sleep,” Kanotle interrupted.

“My men can still-”

“Do not provoke them, War Priest. Now, you will leave my temple, go home, and sleep,” Kanotle ordered loudly, his voice echoing deeply inside the room.

Huatotle dryly cleared his throat, then left the room without any further protest.

“Shall we continue, High Priest?” Kuisotle asked to which the High Priest nodded in response.

The high troglodyte plunged his dagger against a lesser troglodyte slowly and drained its blood against a pool under the pit of fire. The fire shook and cackled as the flow of blood fed the pool, but quickly stopped when the corpse was squeezed dried.

“Any signs?” Kuisotle asked.

“I cannot read the signs at all. They are there, but it is all too foggy,” came the solemn reply.

“Then we continue,” Kuisotle concluded.

“My lord, do you need something?” a Rhankian footman asked when he entered Count Elldrick’s room which was filled with other noblemen looking at a war map.

“What? I asked for Marshal Audwick,” Elldrick replied.

The Rhankian footman shook his head then explained, “I’m sorry, my lord. Marshal Audwick died this morning defending the western walls. I’m the one in charge of the western defenses now as per his wishes.”

Elldrick impatiently tapped the table, then angrily threw a cup at the wall. It took him a few seconds to calm himself then asked, “What about the counter-tunnels?”

“The counter-tunnels are still open. Other than that one section of the wall which fell yesterday, the western walls are safe for now.”

Before Elldrick could say another word, a battered knight came inside the room. “Lord Elldrick, we’ve stopped the assault from the cliff side. We’ve lost some men, but it’s manageable.”

“Good, good. Return to your post,” Elldrick ordered.

“Lord, it would be better if we pull-”

“We cannot pull from the northern walls! By Humanos, how was I supposed to know that those crazy bastards would actually climb the damned cliff? If we let go of the northern walls, forget the bailey, we’ll lose the motte entirely!”

“Yes, Lord. I’m on it,” the knight replied then left the room.

Elldrick nervously paced around the room, and the noblemen in the room quietly stared at the steward. He muttered a few words, then sighed before falling onto his chair.

Finally, a nobleman spoke up, “Lord Elldrick, can’t we just surrender?”

“Surrender? It’s only been two days since they started attacking! We’ll be able to hold the castle-”

“But we don’t even own the ramparts anymore! Even the ballista has gone silent ever since those demon birds showed up!” the nobleman argued.

“They’re starting to prod the eastern walls. Imagine if they start their attacks there. It’ll be hard to move men from the western walls to the eastern side thanks to the demon birds,” another nobleman pitched in.

“One of the granaries was destroyed in one of those raids by the demon birds. To think they could cause large fires to erupt like lightning…”

“The enemy catapults are taking a toll on our keeps. Just this afternoon, another keep fell. At this rate, we’ll lose all our towers!”

“My men tried to find a way out of the encirclement, but they confirmed that we are locked tight like a prisoner in their own house.”

“I heard stories from the survivors of Castle Norwind that the Vyssians nobles actually protected the lives of those who surrendered, but their men were… questionable.”

Elldrick leaned back on his chair, then stared at the war map. On paper, he was supposed to be the one who has the upper hand in a castle siege, yet he was beset in every angle possible.

In the first place, it was absurd that he had to face an army which was meticulously prepared to break down a castle. Some armies would at most only support tunnelers, and even then, many would prefer starving out a castle.

“Why won’t they attack?” Elldrick asked. “They’ve breached the western wall, we’ve lost most of the ramparts, and I could see that they’re preparing a ram. What could they be waiting for?”

“Reinforcements, perhaps? We don’t know their exact numbers, but judging from their lines, they don’t have enough to assault a castle,” a nobleman suggested.

“I see…” Elldrick mumbled then looked up onto the ceiling. “Send a messenger. We negotiate our surrender.”

“I will go-”

“Wait. I’ll go instead,” Elldrick interrupted before a nobleman could run off.

“My lord, that is dangerous. It would be better if we send someone else,” a nobleman protested.

“No, this decision is final. Some of you will come with me. The rest of you, sit here. Get me a scorched branch,” Elldrick ordered.

On the other side of the playing field, Slayer and Exarchi studied the castle from a distance while sharing information with each other through hivespeak.

“Interesting. This castle doesn’t have boiling oil. At best, they just heat up water and prepare it at the gate,” Exarchi noted. “We would be able to take down their gates with a direct assault.”

“Then why are we not attacking now?” Slayer asked.

“I’m taking this opportunity to experiment with strategies so I don’t want to batter their gates down just yet,” Exarchi said before turning his attention back to the battle statistics. “The humans seem to lack a counter against our aerial drones, and the human soldiers are doing poorly during sustained combat. I wonder what tactic should I use now...”

For the past day or two, the drones had been constantly skirmishing against the humans in various ways. At first, the drones engaged from afar using crossbows, but bolts were still expensive and used by the aerial drones, so they switched to using slings and making javelins from resources gathered close to the battlefield.

Tunnels were built in an attempt to collapse the walls or to get direct access into the inner castle, but the humans were prepared with countertunnels, so Exarchi had to stop tunneling attempts after the drones managed to collapse one section of the western walls.

“I don’t understand why the humans are getting worse throughout the siege,” Slayer remarked.

“Because apparently they get fatigued and stressed. And from what I heard from Red, they also get less morale as the fight goes on. I am not sure which part of the human body stores those elements, but I don’t care. As long as they work for me, it’s fine for me!” Exarchi answered.

“Look, the humans are coming out. It seems they are ready to attack us head-on,” Slayer said as he pointed towards the castle.

“Why is the human at the front holding a semi-burnt branch? Have they ran out of weapons?” Exarchi asked.

The humans were shouting loudly, but they weren’t displaying any signs of hostility. In fact, none of them were armed. The drones were trying to make sense of what kind of military tactic this was until Red suddenly interrupted through hivespeak.

‘Holding a burnt branch up is a sign that they have no hostile intentions. P-Perhaps they want to talk?’ Red pointed out with a slight hint of doubt in her tone.

‘Talk? Why talk? Did the humans develop an ability to kill their enemies by talking to them to death?’ Slayer asked.

‘I think… they want to negotiate.’

‘I see. They want to open up a trade deal! Very well, we might as well profit from this then kill them!’ Exarchi exclaimed. ‘The last time we had a trade deal, we managed to amass enough matter to create an army!’

The drones stopped tossing pebbles and javelins at the humans which allowed the envoys to approach the drone’s line unharmed. Once the humans were close enough, Exarchi and Slayer, flanked by several Thane drones, approached the human envoys.

The strange human with the burnt branch was saying something, but the drones couldn’t understand anything he was saying.

“Ahem. Maybe you speak Vyssian?” the human asked.

“Yes. You want to trade?” Exarchi asked back.

“Trade? Yes! I want to open up a trade! Our lives in exchange for Castle Marcoir!” the human offered.

“I don’t… understand,” Exarchi said with a shrug.

“Is my Vyssian off? Erm… you get castle. That thing. Castle,” The human lord pointed behind him, then continued, “And we leave. No fighting. Okay?”

“What? You want to leave? That’s it?” Exarchi asked.

“Yes! We want to go. We surrender the castle.”

“Ok. Go.” While it was a shame that Exarchi wouldn’t be able to experiment anymore, his ultimate goal was to take the castle by any means. Exarchi waved his hands then turned to go back to his camp when the human suddenly interrupted him.

“Wait! That’s it? No prisoners or anything?”

Exarchi stared at the human for a while before turning towards Slayer. They began discussing to each other while the human lord, Elldrick, watched in confusion.

The drones started to make a series of sounds which resembled bell chimes and metal clanking which caused Elldrick to look around to see if there were any Vyssians who were playing music, but found none. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if these people were Vyssians!

Finally, Exarchi turned to Elldrick then declared, “You will leave immediately. Don’t pack anything, leave your equipment and goods in the castle.”

“That’s it?” Elldrick asked.

“Yes, go. Now, go go go,” Exarchi shooed the humans off.

Elldrick looked at the strange men in confusion, but decided not to think about it too hard. He rode back to the castle with his entourage in tow.

“My lord, you not only managed to save our lives, but you allowed us to flee back to Rhankia!” a nobleman cheered as the Rhanks rode back.

“I… I don’t know what I said. I guess they just wanted the castle and they didn’t want to deal with us. Gather the men as soon as we arrive. We leave today, before the besiegers change their minds,” Elldrick ordered.


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