After three days of travelling through the mountains, Ethan’s group finally reached their destination, which turned out to be the mouth of a small cave hidden behind a rocky outcropping. They were immediately surrounded the moment they approached the cave.
“Kothar, I see you cowered and left the battle like the craven you are,” said a scrawny man wearing strange headgear. Ethan hated him immediately.
“Telk, you have no business accusing me of being craven. I’m not the one hiding between my mother’s bosoms,” replied Kothar coldly.
“You will address me as Chieftain Telk, and unlike you, I take my duty seriously! Guarding the Matriarch of the Krell is but an honour!” Telk shot back with a venomous look. “And what business have you away from the battlefield, craven?” He asked with a sneer. His men laughed.
”I’m here to petition the Matriarch for an audience,” said Kothar with a nonchalant attitude.
“Oh? Do you wish to ask for a boon? Perhaps to finally be spared the rigours of honourable combat and to settle down as a farmer? Is the life of a warrior too much for you?” Telk let out a loathsome laugh.
“Move out of my way, Telk. I have important business with the Matriarch.” Kothar tried to shoulder past, only to have his way barred by Telk’s men.
“I’m not letting you through until I know what business you claim to have.” He said as he eyed the group. His gaze finally settled on Ethan. Although he was completely wrapped in furs, he still looked noticeably foreign.
“Aha! I see, and who would that huta be? A spy, perhaps? Did you capture him? Is he the reason why you abandoned your sacred duty?”
Ethan did not know what huta meant, but he guessed it was not a nice word. This did not make him a happy guest, not in the least. Over the past few days, his AI had been slowly analysing the language, with the help of the foreign interface that was translating for him. This would help him understand the language on his own, eventually. The reason he wanted to speak the language himself was that he didn’t trust anything or anyone in this strange world. If the foreign interface that was so freely rendering aid to him were to suddenly disappear, he wanted to be able to survive on his own.
What he didn’t know, but his AI was in the process of analysing, was that this foreign interface was perhaps as old as the world he currently resided in. It was part of the ‘system’, something like the rules of physics or the universal constants governing its reality.
“Our guest is none of your business, Chieftain Telk, now move aside.” Kothar’s patience was obviously wearing thin.
“Or what?” Telk tilted his head and looked directly at Kothar.
It was clear this challenge could devolve into something with a violent outcome.
“Or I will personally dole out punishment to errant children,” came the voice of an elderly woman from behind him. Telk’s face paled, and he looked like a deer caught in headlights. He immediately jumped out of the way.
“Elder Ro, my most sincere apologies!” Telk backpedalled without shame.
“That put him in his place,” Ethan heard the men behind him whisper.
“Kothar, why have you come? Why have you not joined the ancestors with the warriors who perished at the front lines? Did you turn your back on your brothers?”
“We were defeated?” Kothar exclaimed in shock. The men behind him let out cries of dismay.
“Yes, our shamans sent word with their last breath, and the ones who live have all retreated into the mountains. So, pray tell, brave warriors, why do our foes still live while you are here, and not at the Krashi plains fighting to the last man?”
Kothar’s look was grim as he reported. “We met this man on the battlefield,” he pointed back to Ethan. “He claims his name is Ethan West. He appeared out of thin air and moved like a Kashuk possessed to evade pursuit. I have never seen anything like it. The Polarii wanted him alive, but he took shelter within our ranks and, based on something he told me, I made the decision that this was a matter for the Great Matriarch.”
“Fool! You didn’t think him a Polarii spy who seeks The Matriarch’s location? You dare bring him to The Gathering?” Telk accused with disdain.
“He did slay a Polarii in battle. I saw it,” murmured a man from the back.
“So what? This proves nothing!”
They all started to argue loudly. Ethan was silent. He knew he only got the experience for assisting in that kill, but he didn’t try to correct them. He was really nervous right now—what would he do if they decided to kill him right here? Run away? To where? Would he even be able to escape? And now that he knew the location of this ‘gathering’ and that Matriarch of theirs, could they really afford to let him go? Were they going to kill him after interrogating him for all the information he knew?
His freedom wasn’t really up for negotiation but, for now, he was willing to play along.
Meanwhile, everyone was still arguing.
“Silence!” shouted the elder, glaring at Telk and the rest. They all quieted down, the elder was apparently deep in thought.
“I see,” said the elder, absentmindedly kneading the colourful beads around her neck. “I see. Follow me.”
Everyone began to follow her inside the cave, but she turned back and stopped them. “Not you, Telk. You and your men are still guarding this place.”
Telk’s face reddened, but he complied. With a look to his men, they turned and scattered to their posts.
Elder Ro turned to the other men accompanying Kothar and Ethan. “All of you, go find a place to rest, and a meal to eat.” She turned to Kothar and Ethan, “…and you two, follow me.”
They both followed her into the heart of The Gathering.
[Commander] Talius was currently reviewing a scout’s report of the battle’s aftermath.
He sat back in his seat and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. Damn it all! After their last stand on the plains, many groups of the enemy had escaped and retreated into the Krashi mountains to the north. How troublesome. Now it would take months to completely route them out if it was at all possible. This campaign’s progress was basically destined to grind to a halt. Moreover, they would have the high ground, and the free port of the city-state of Grania at their backs to resupply.
The Empire couldn’t move troops behind the mountains and surround them for this very reason. He’d cautioned his [General] against this in their last strategy meeting not more than three hours ago. As if this was not enough, there were other problems, like the heavy losses at the battle for the plains.
Each Imperial [Soldier] was supposed to be worth ten human [Warriors], according to Imperial propaganda. But in truth, in a fair fight, an experienced Krell [Warrior] could hold his ground against as many as three regular Polarii [Soldiers].
While his [General] would have none of it, Talius knew this was just a basic truth.
The only advantage The Empire could bring to bear against this enemy was its Magisterium. There simply was no equal to the might of professionally trained [Battlemages] and [Pyromancers] that could cast large area-effect spells and decimate swaths of the opposition with the brute strength of the elements. But even then, the Krell had their Shamans and their defensive magics. They could form power circles and link their spells, a technique that still eluded the Magisterium.
No [Shaman] was ever captured alive and for good reason. They would always commit to suicide when cornered with no hope of escape. They were masters of this technique.
He sighed and put down the report. There were movements along the Elru river. The river flowed from the Krashi mountain peaks and snaked its way south through the Krashi plains. It was a lifeline to the more desolate regions to the north closer to the border, and it looked like the Krell were planning to do something with it. He just didn’t know what. But it would have to wait. Today he was being assigned a new subordinate after his [Pyromancer], Aylin, had fled the camp.
Finally being rid of the sadistic girl had brought a smile to his face. Although he didn’t care much for the intrigues of nobility, he thought her family would disown her for sure. She’d brought it on her own head, though. For when she asked for that divination and he forbade it, he knew she’d go behind his back. That’s why he immediately made that bet with the Vice Magister and waited…
It brought him immense pleasure when his plans came together like this, although, by fleeing, she’d outdone herself this time. Her desertion, on top of everything else, had been the icing on the cake. Now there was no going back for her, just slow, excruciating torture by The Hands if she was ever caught.
His tent flap rustled and a [Guard] saluted as he stepped in.
“Sir? A [Mage] was sent to see you. Should I let him in?” Asked the [Guard].
“Yes, Bek, please do so,” Talius said.
The [Guard] quickly exited the tent to do as he was bid. Some scant seconds later, a fat Polarii with a very bushy beard entered the tent.
“Acolyte Jarret Lytell, at your service,” he bowed slightly. “I have been assigned to your unit as the acting [Mage]. I specialise as a [Hydromancer], in addition to my general occupation,” he finished, pointing out the insignia on his robes. “I am also the second heir to the Lytell family,” he stated proudly.
Talius sighed. There was no love lost between him and the nobles. Too bad the Krell didn’t have such a caste, it would have made fighting them much easier. Although, from personal experience, some of them were worthy of being called ‘noble’, and not the politically inclined variety. Wait! He remembered something from the report and his eyes lit up.
Jarret took the sigh to mean something else entirely and appeared quite apprehensive. [Commander] Talius was a legend in the Imperial Command. Offending him was a terrible idea, and after the debacle with his previous counterpart – which was still a hot topic for conversation in the entire encampment – Jarret really wanted to avoid the same fate.
“Have I said something to offend?” he asked, his eyes uncertain.
Talius looked distracted. “Oh, no, nothing of the sort, I just remembered something important about the latest report. You’ll have to excuse me,” Talius said as he got up from his seat. It was bad manners, but he couldn’t help it. The aristocracy really rubbed him the wrong way.
“Of course. I’ll take my leave, please let me know if you require anything,” Jarret said.
“Of course. Dismissed,” Talius said distractedly.
The man bowed and left with haste. [Commander] Talius didn’t really feel bad as he picked up the report again. His mind was focused on one detail.
“There!” He exclaimed as he pointed at a single name.
A name worthy of calling ‘noble’.
Aylin Merza was currently hiding behind a rock, trading spells with a group of bowmen. She willed another fireball into existence as she darted from cover to cover and released the spell, torching another Krell [Scout] in the process. She didn’t expect a barbed arrow to intercept her trajectory and pierce deeply into her shoulder.
She let out a cry of pain and fell on her back, but the rain of arrows did not abate. An arrow pierced her leg, and another pierced her breast. She screamed in agony, as the wounds seared her brain with blinding pain.
The arrows used by the Krell were a tool of torture. First, they were barbed in a way that made extracting them require a surgical procedure, and they coated them with a slow-acting poison that did not kill but made coherent thought a real impossibility, much less coherent spellcasting.
In other words, they were [Mage]-killers. Once that arrow pierced her shoulder, she knew that she was done for. She started to lose control over the self-destruct spell she had charged and prepared beforehand, which was only to be expected, with the liquid pain coursing through her veins.
Then the hail of arrows stopped, and an old man stepped out from behind the bowmen. He looked to be in his fifties and had a lot of tattoos running up his arms all the way to his temples. He wore tribal leather armour and strange feathers around his head, not that she was in any state to notice the details. He stopped before her, studied her, and his eyes lit up with recognition. He shouted something at the bowmen, and they all retreated a respectable distance as he stepped up to her and sank down to one knee. He put his hand on her forehead and chanted a few words and she lost consciousness.
When she came to, she found herself tied down to a primitive sledge being dragged by two men. She tried casting a spell to free herself. It fizzled out, and the men laughed.
She cursed inwardly and lamented her rotten luck.