It was subtle, at first. The people responsible for Lord Hayhurst’s cavalry detachment noticed that the horses seemed to be uncharacteristically slow and lethargic. It had only been a few days since they crossed the Republic’s border and although the hilly terrain was rough, their overall speed was slow enough to not cause this perplexing fatigue. Of course, one could always attribute the animals’ lack of energy to the long trip they had to take in order to arrive at their staging area in the first place, but their handlers doubted it was something that simple. After all, it wasn’t just the common-bred beasts of burden used to pull the supply wagons, but the trained warhorses also behaved oddly. Still, it was very subtle, and not problematic enough to halt or even slow down their progress.
And then, as the 5,000 strong army detachment was making its way along a dirt road that snaked its way up the side of a steep hill, the horses keeled over. All 900 of the beasts fell down while foaming at the mouth, almost in unison. A few of them went over the side of the road and tumbled down the hill with their riders still attached, while others crushed the infantry under their massive weight. The march immediately ground to a halt, and the humans braced themselves for ambush. However, the sheer absurdity of what had just happened was enough to rattle the courage of these men and women, even if their training forbade them from acting on it.
Thanks to Keira’s timely reports, the Republic was accurately able to track their movements and determine their destination. There were a number of high-value targets in the area, such as Fort Yimin or the city of Kulgara, but this particular group was ill-equipped to lay siege to either of those heavily fortified settlements. It was soon made clear their goal was to suppress and seize control of the surrounding area, known simply as the Clattering Plains. Doing so would cut off said fort and city from the rest of the Republic, and would secure a route through which the Empire could move in with a bigger invasion force.
Having determined their target and their route, the Republic’s Alchemists and scouts laid a trap by spreading a slow-acting poison into the soil along the way. It rapidly seeped into the surrounding vegetation, and was transmitted to the horses that grazed on the now poisonous grass and shrubs. Once the toxin had thoroughly infected their bodies, the Republic aggravated it at a specific point in time by using wind magic to send an invisible, nearly odorless gas washing over the human force. Although it didn’t do anything to the soldiers, other than letting them detect a faint scent of raspberries, it reacted with the poison within the horses’ bodies and rapidly sped up its effects.
It was a roundabout way of doing things, but it did its job of limiting the army’s mobility without shedding a single drop of blood. And while said horses could undoubtedly saved if the Imperial medics treated them immediately, the Republic’s guerillas would not give them the chance to do so. They reason the elves made the Imperial army’s march stop at this spot specifically, was because this was the ideal spot to unleash the second phase of their plan. One they had vigorously prepared for over the last 2 days.
The earth shook and groaned as the elves triggered a massive landslide. Trees, mud and rocks came tumbling down the side of the steep hill, threatening to crush the large army underneath. The Empire’s own magic users immediately flew into action, erecting numerous shields of light and barriers of stone to protect their comrades. However, their rushed defenses proved to be inadequate in the face of mother nature’s unleashed fury, and roughly a quarter of their forces found themselves buried under the dirt or swept down the side of the hill.
What followed was a barrage of arrows and magic from above, let loose by the elven forces that set that disaster into motion. Hundreds of humans died in those first few seconds, but the damage could have been much, much worse, as the Republic had assigned only 700 or so of their drafted adventurers to this plan. While one explanation for this relatively small number was that a larger force would attract attention, the main reason behind it was that they simply could not spare any more troops for this risky endeavor.
And, as expected, an Imperial regiment was not so easily disrupted. While they did suffer some damage from the landslide and subsequent ambush, their soldiers were far too numerous and powerful to be done in by this much. Warriors and Paladins raised their shields to block the incoming ranged attacks, while Priests chanted large-scale healing magic. Their own Casters and bow users returned fire as numerous men and women slowly but surely dug their way out of the landslide’s aftermath.
All of a sudden, there were a series of explosions among the Empire’s back lines that disrupted the magic of their healers. Although the damage from the metal shrapnel was not enough to outright kill them, it proved enough to break their concentration and disrupt their magic. The powerful, entirely non-magical shockwave also rattled both their bones and their resolve, as they did not see it coming in the slightest.
“Huhuhu, how’s that!?” proudly declared Keira, the main culprit behind that disturbance.
“Wow…” let out Lola. “That almost feels like cheating.”
“Such a thing…” lamented Jules under his breath.
Yeah! Show those bitches who’s boss! silently cheered Purupururin.
Of course those 4 were there. The Republic had to maximise its resources, so it ordered the vast majority of scouting units, including Keira’s recon team 31, to join up with the ambush force and provide fire support. Even a close-ranged Warrior like Lola was able to contribute thanks to a heavy repeating crossbow of dwarven make. It was a bulky weapon that required a lot of strength to operate, making it impossible for the average noodle-armed Rangers to use efficiently. And while it lacked the accuracy, range and damage of a good bow, its dizzying rate of fire more than made up for it.
However, even that dangerous thing seemed like a toy compared to Keira’s newest acquisition.
The beastkin reached back over her shoulder and drew another of her special arrows. Although the shaft was nothing out of the ordinary, the arrowhead was a long metal cylinder with a long string sticking out of the underside. Keira put the string in her teeth, nocked the arrow on her bow and took a firing stance. She then pulled her head back just enough to make the string attaching her teeth to her arrow taut as she took aim. When she was ready, she pulled her head back sharply, yanking the string and the pin that was attached to it out of the arrowhead with a small clicking sound.
The single arrow split into 4 as it left her bow. The glinting cylinders flew through the air, just another few drops in a sea of projectiles that were headed in either direction.
Boxxy’s specially designed arrows let out another multi-pronged roar as they exploded on impact with the ground, seemingly at random. One of them managed to connect to an unfortunate Wizard’s face, ripping it to shreds. It caught the humans completely off guard, as those slim projectiles were almost completely invisible and had far greater range than any magic they had seen.
The next set of explosions wonderfully set fire to the line of stalled supply carts at the back. That one was completely on purpose, as eliminating the enemy’s stockpile of food, water and potions was an important sub-objective of this mission. After all, an army marched on its stomach, so taking those out was a good way of slowing these guys down.
Her next target were a 30-man group of soldiers towards the front that had formed a shield wall and were steadily climbing up the steep hill towards the elves. The violent explosions set off another small landslide, and they found themselves being pushed back. Losing their balance and their stances, the shield wall crumbled and the Republic’s other forces took that opportunity to rip them to shreds.
Looking over the battlefield with a keen eye from further behind and above Keira was Faehorn. He was the highest-ranking officer and also the one in command of this operation. Of course, that didn’t mean he just sat and watched. His superior Level and Attributes allowed him to attack from a far greater range than the others, so his hands never stopped firing arrows the entire time as he judged the developing situation had gone on long enough.
With the element of surprise well and truly gone, the Imperial army regiments were starting to fight back in earnest. The elves would suffer heavy casualties if he let this drag on any longer. Besides, his main objective was more or less complete, so his higher ups wouldn’t nag at him for pulling his former students out too early. He therefore reached for his belt pouch and took out a small wooden tube. He pointed it towards the sky and pulled on the string coming out of its end, letting loose a red signal flare to signal the retreat. Seeing that bright light, the various adventurers immediately broke off their assault, split up into numerous teams of 3 to 6 people and scrambled up the side of the hill, over the top, and down the opposite slope.
Faehorn coldly assessed the results of the attack while he watched over the disorderly retreat. They had managed to take out somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 of the humans within the span of those hectic few minutes. Their cavalry was crippled and their supplies were torched. In return, his side suffered relatively minor casualties. He would get an accurate headcount back at base, but for the moment he estimated they hadn’t lost more than 50 people.
Well, there would probably be more if the army seriously gave chase, but that was unlikely. Not unless the humans’ command was an absolute idiot. The Imperial soldiers would still go after the retreating elves and attempted to pick off or catch any stragglers, but they wouldn’t stray too far from their group. Traversing this monster-infested wilderness was something adventurers did far better than rank-and-file soldiers, so they were bound to have casualties even without facing any enemy combatants.
That’s when the Comm-crystal in his pocket started vibrating. He held it with one hand and answered it as he made his way down the slope, and the image of a strict-looking information officer appeared out of thin air.
“Faehorn, this is Forward Command!” he said urgently, not waiting for the elf to confirm his identity. “Be advised, recon team 16 has spotted a group of 5 griffins headed towards you from east-by-southeast!”
Faehorn turned his gaze towards the specified direction and saw a number of tiny specks in the distance. Activating his Farsight Skill allowed his vision to zoom in and confirm the presence of 5 winged creatures, each carrying either a metal container or wooden carriage on its back.
“I see them,” said the old Ranger with a calm voice. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Understood! Forward Command, out.”
Faehorn put away the Comm-crystal and dashed off to intercept the gryphon. His subordinates already knew what to do and where to go, so his presence there wasn’t necessary. Instead, he decided he’d cut down a number of the Empire’s prized griffins. The air superiority they provided was something the elves could not match. While the Republic did have several battalions of Wyvern riders, they were no match for the much larger and more powerful griffins. The humans used them as flying fortresses that could ferry troop and supplies with ease, in addition to allowing them to scout out enemy positions. Indeed, griffins assisted the Empire with all aspects of warfare. As expected of a creature literally bred for war.
However, their opponent this time was bad. After getting close enough, Faehorn readied the weapon in his hands. It was a remarkably plain-looking thing, no fancier than any run-of-the-mill longbow. Its true ability was displayed when its wielder pulled on the bowstring, and a spectral arrow materialized out of thin air as if it had always been there. This Artifact-grade item’s name was Enduring Gale. Not only did it never run out of ammo, but the special arrows it fired flew remarkably straight since they ignored silly things like wind and gravity until they hit their target.
Taking a deep breath, Faehorn activated his Rapid Fire and Deadeye Skills, then took aim.
The magic arrow flew out of his bow at a speed too fast for the untrained eye to catch, all while leaving a faint blue trail in its wake. The projectile flew over a kilometer through the air and struck the lead griffin in its eye. The beast howled in pain and wavered left and right, but did not fall. At least, not quite yet.
“Snipe! Snipe! Snipe! Snipe! Snipe! Snipe!”
The lead beast’s head became riddled with arrows and it started falling to the ground before the other four realized they were under fire. They must have realized the ridiculous range they were being engaged at, and turned around in a hasty retreat of their own. Faehorn managed to down a second and severely injure a third before the overgrown chickens left his range. Most worryingly of all, the last two were left completely unharmed. Not because Faehorn didn’t aim at them, but because someone managed to physically deflect each and every shot the elf fired at those two.
“Heh, looks like I missed out on meeting a big shot,” mused the old elf.
Whoever that someone was, they were definitely one of the Empire’s powerhouses of over Level 100. They were likely a Monk or Paladin, as evidenced by how they flew about on wings of their own, just like his good friend Lichter. It was a bit irksome that he didn’t get all of them, but Faehorn decided that simply scaring them off at this stage was good enough. Besides, there was nothing he could do about it now. It wasn’t like the Ranger was going to try and chase those flying creatures on foot. He therefore had to be satisfied with 2 confirmed gryphon kills and making sure those beasts didn’t interfere with his subordinates’ escape. This was as much as he was going to be able to do for today, so he made his way back to the rendezvous point at Fort Yimin.
Faehorn arrived at the fort in question the following morning. Much like other elven fortifications, it was built inside a grove of Hylt trees. Unlike the positively ancient ones at the capital, these ones were only about 450 to 500 years old and reached up to a height of about 250 to 300 meters. The gaps between them were fortified with stone walls that were additionally reinforced with processed Ironbark from the surrounding trees. The local garrison could hold an army of nearly 15,000 soldiers, but was currently only home to about 10,000 troops, although more reinforcements streamed in each day. This was, after all, the region’s first real line of defense as well as a staging area for the Republic’s adventurer-led hit-and-run tactics, so they expected to be hit by a large-scale assault sooner or later.
The old Ranger marched up to the front gates, where a line of returning combatants was waiting to be processed. He recognized many of the faces he passed by as he walked up the line, and they all gave him a respectful salute or nod. He would’ve liked to stand in line with the rest of them, but he had to consider his position as an officer. He therefore, as politely as possible, cut in front of the line, submitted to a cursory Basic Appraisal to verify his identity and made his way towards the keep.
Once inside the large building, he made his way up to the third floor and entered the room labeled ‘Forward Command.’ It was a large space that housed many desks buried by reports, multiple shelves filled with various supplies and tools, and numerous maps that covered the walls and most tables. These were all manned by dozens of people who milled about, doing something or other as they worked to organize and coordinate the war effort in this part of the country. They all stopped what they were doing and gave the returning Faehorn a short round of applause and cheers, but returned to their duties almost immediately after.
The Ranger walked up to a stern-faced, middle-aged elf with ginger hair. He wore a stuffy-looking uniform that consisted of a long-sleeved coat, pressed trousers and black knee-high boots. It was mostly brown in color, except for the sleeves that were black from the elbows down. Noticing Faehorn’s approach, the intelligence officer stood up from his station and greeted him with a salute.
“Good to have you back, sir.”
“Don’t be like that, Silus. You’re technically above me, you know.”
“Perhaps in military rank, but definitely not in ability,” said the officer as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Sir,” he added with a wry grin.
Faehorn let out a small chuckle as he shook his head. These Underwood characters were always sly like that. As if just anyone could manage and collect intelligence reports coming in from over 30 sources all at once the way he could. The older elf quickly chased away such idle thoughts and focused on the task at hand. He ushered the other man into an available meeting room and began the preliminary debriefing. There would be a proper one later on, but he wanted to check on the details right away.
“So, how did we do on our mission?”
“I believe the words ‘resounding success’ were thrown about here and there, sir. We expect that Imperial detachment to be delayed by at least 3 weeks before they can replenish their supplies and their numbers. Especially since Sir soundly chased away their gryphons.”
“That’s good I suppose. Do we know how many casualties we inflicted?”
“According to preliminary reports, our ambush eliminated about 1,600 enemies, sir.”
“What of our losses?”
“Not all of our combatants have returned to base, but we have a total of 45 either KIA or MIA, sir.”
“I see. That’s… better than I expected.”
Even if from a military standpoint it was an almost insignificant loss, Faehorn took every death of those under his charge as a personal failure. It was a bad habit of his time serving as an instructor, but he couldn’t help it. He was an adventurer, not a soldier. Even if the notion that the people he laughed and ate with yesterday might be dead the next day was not foreign, it was still something he couldn’t get used to. Still, he dealt with it, in his own way.
“Also,” spoke up Underwood, “there’s the matter of the recon team 31.”
“The team consisting of Lola Yeres, Jules Morel and Keira Morgana, sir. I believe the last one is one of yours, yes?”
“Ah, yes, that’s right. She performed quite well, didn’t she?”
“Indeed, sir. It is my personal opinion your ambush would not have worked as well as it did if not for her managing to keep eyes on the enemy for so long.”
It wasn’t like Keira’s team was the only one keeping tabs on that force, but the fact she remained completely undetected was worthy of praise.
“Hmm, as expected,” mused her teacher with a hint of pride in his voice. “That girl’s judgement is top-notch, despite her young age.”
Of course, Faehorn could have just have easily done the same, but he was unfortunately needed elsewhere. That ambush was just a small part of a much larger conflict, after all. She also used some weird arrows in the battle itself, likely yet another gizmo from that golem she befriended recently. Their effects were very similar to the Burst Shot Martial Art that any Ranger could learn to use, but being able to combine that with effect with Multishot was truly inspired. It allowed her to sow chaos and panic among the enemy ranks, despite her much lower Level.
Faehorn hadn’t really considered that option, as an Artificer’s place in open warfare was something that had yet to be fully evaluated. After all, it was one of the relatively younger Jobs, having been discovered as little as 120 years ago, and was taking a while before the gnomes that founded it managed to spread it throughout the world. Finding an Artificer outside the Horkensaft Kingdom was still quite rare, after all.
“So what’s this about young miss Morgana?” asked Faehorn after deciding to have a chat with her later.
Officer Underwood reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a crystal cube that was about 8 centimeters on each side, that had a label with ‘31’ written on it stuck to the side.
That was a Comm-crystal, a magic item that allowed for instantaneous long-distance communication between two people. As vital as it was to this mission, it still had a number of flaws. For one thing, the range was impressive, but not unlimited. It also demanded some of the user’s MP in order to activate it and was rather expensive to make. However, perhaps the most glaring flaw with this magic item was that Comm-crystals were created in pairs, and could only connect to one another. Meaning that if Underwood were to tap on the cube in his hand and activated it by speaking the password, then the only people he can get in touch with would be the adventurers assigned to recon team 31.
However, doing that right now would be pointless. For the normally blue-tinged cube had turned a lifeless gray. A clear sign that its paired Comm-crystal had been destroyed.
It was something all recon teams were told to do in the event that they were captured.