So, Phaedra was gone.
Frankly, Gillam had been waiting for the day when she would flounce off and leave her duty. The timing was odd though, but then again she had been acting odd on the journey to Aarta. She had been strangely reserved, hardly talking at all, and would wander off when they made camp.
He didn’t say a word. Erol was clearly deeply concerned and racing through the streets with an uncanny certainty for where he was going. Even though Erol regularly paused to wait for him, Gillam struggled to keep up in his armor.
He followed Erol into an alley by the docks and found the Mrissan staring at a distinct gash in the piled-up ropes.
“She’s gone,” Erol said again.
Gillam didn’t have time to think of something to say before another two men entered the alleyway. Erol’s eyes grew wide in surprise.
They soon found themselves walking through endless halls and corridors in the labyrinth that was the Academy. Ahead of him, Erol and the Rabhanastrian called Hakeem talked of research and magical this-and-that. Gillam gazed around disinterestedly at the bookshelves, charts and paintings that were placed anywhere there was a space. Outside the expansive windows, the Academy’s courtyards the bustling with refugees from the hinterlands seeking refuge within the walls.
Hakeem took them to his apartment and sat them down to a cup of tea at his desk. His room was a landfill of books and artefacts. While Erol explained their story, Gillam surely dozed off a little. He must have because he dreamed of floating sugar cubes dropping into their teas.
There were no quarters left available but the professor, or whatever he was, gave them a lecture hall to stay in, adding that Kushlu and the others had already been escorted there. They rested there for the night, though they sent Wendika off to slip out of the city and attempt to locate Phaedra, wherever she may have gone to.
A young soldier came the next day to escort Gillam and Erol to meet with Commander Claitus and the other Aartanian generals. Taking Kushlu and Mahala with them they were brought up a turret atop which sat one of the massive ballista.
The commanders gave a show of the ballista’s power and reach. Claitus pointed out a small bushy hillock so distant they needed an eyeglass to see it properly. The ballista fired a rock high into the air and hit it with such precision that Gillam made a mental note of never attempting to invade Aarta. The commanders also assured them that, with Aarta holding the bay, there was no fear of starvation through siege. “We shall wait for the Dalyrians to give up,” Claitus chuckled. It wasn’t that funny.
He then personally took them back to the Academy and deep within to the Dicemvirate – the council of ten eggheads who ran Aarta. They entered a rather unassuming room furnished solely by a round table. The members of the Dicemvirate gazed at them with knowing eyes that made Gillam rather uncomfortable. Among them was Hakeem. He was the only one who smiled warmly and assured them they would answer any questions.
So they asked about how the war started. They admitted Aarta did shoot first but only because of a letter they had received. It read:
“To my esteemed colleagues in the Decemvirate,
On behalf of Dalyria, and the council of lords, whom I represent, we are sincerely disturbed by the lack of cooperation that has been expressed in our most reasonable requests of late. Given the long-standing brotherhood between our great nations, we are, disappointed. Yet the situation has not changed. We require cooperation to defeat a common foe. Surely you can understand this. At this juncture, we respectfully demand that full access be given to the Harbor in Aarta, to assist in resupply and strategic importance in our campaign against the traitorous Phyrans. We will be most disappointed if this request is ignored. I expect you answer by tomorrow at midday.
Lord Spiros, Representative Dalyrian Council of Nobles.”
“Their fleet arrived the next morning and their land army had already amassed on the border by the eleventh,” one of the council added. It was clearly well-orchestrated.
By the end of the meeting the Aartanians had requested arms, intelligence and such from Aaren.
As they walked from the council chamber, Gillam was insistent that they return to Aaren. Erol, though, Erol wished to spend some time tracking down Phaedra. But then their discussion was interrupted by a boy called Bjorn, a Lugardian in service to the Dicemvirate. He was eager to accompany them as a representative should they return.
And so, the next morning, Kushlu spoke to the naval commander and blagged them a fishing boat down to the southern end of the Aartanian coast. With Bjorn in tow they disembarked at a lonely beach and started their trek across the unmapped farms and woods.
One night on their journey back, they were woken by voices. Erol tracked Marian men heading to a farmstead. They followed only to see the band of five kill the old man on his doorstep and take his daughter inside. With Mahala’s stealthy aid, they killed the rapists, and then dumped their bodies, gave the farmer a proper burial and took the girl to her uncle’s place the next day.
Another night had them dealing with thieving yokels but they eventually returned to the border pass unscathed.
Dhonyl was there, keeping the refugee camp in order. He was surprised they had returned so soon but was glad of it – the refugee situation was growing out of control and the Dalyrian envoys were increasingly snappy at being kept waiting. They gave their report and presented Bjorn who gave him the Aartanians side of the story.
They had not been there long before troubled erupted once again. During the night, Liri, the freedom fighter whom Phaedra had befriended, had been caught sneaking around the Dalyrian envoy’s tent and the man was found to be dead the next morning. While she was cleared of guilt – the man had ‘heart attack’ written across his fat belly – there was no doubt of the guilt of the Dalyrians when Bjorn suddenly started choking on his breakfast. The boy lived, but the Dalyrian men very quickly went from guests to prisoners.
That morning also brought news from Dalyria itself, of a great fire that had rage through the docks leaving behind what was colloquially described as a big “black turd”.
There was clearly something wrong with Dalyria and something had to be done, now. For Gillam, there was only one course of action: invade and liberate. It didn’t take long for Lord Dhonyl to agree and within a day Gillam found himself at the lead of the small Aaren army marching into Aartanian lands. (It was a big job, but he knew he was up to the task…)
They marched on to Karpathia with speed, shocking the Dalyrian roadblocks into quick surrender. In a few days they were on Karpathia and wasted no time waiting to attack the occupying army.
Flanking on three sides, they squeezed the enemy back in the town. As their ranks dwindled, Erol finished the battle for good by blowing their commander’s head clean off his shoulder with a perfect arrow. When the Dalyrians noticed his sudden lack of presence, they soon routed.
It took short time to round up the stragglers and the others encamped around the town. They were thanked graciously by the town leaders and asked to stay and protect them. However, they had to keep moving and the next day they were on the march again in spite of a few hangovers and drizzly weather dampening the ground and the soldier’s spirits. As the march slowed, Erol broke from the column and ran ahead to Aarta with to inform the commanders of their approach.
A couple of days later, they were able to see Aarta, and came across a Dalyrian camp just out of ballista range. The large camp was manned by about a quarter of the men, though, and they soon scattered at the sight of the approaching force. They raised their banners then, to show Aarta their arrival; on the assumption that Erol had managed to deliver the message ahead of them.
As it turned out, Erol’s journey had been perilous. He had narrowly avoided being found by a band of Dalyrians at a watering hole by diving into the cold pool and holding his breath. Other misadventures with bears and such had left him miserable and suffering a bad cold.
Even so, support came from Aarta and the combined force flanked a Dalyrian army approaching up the coast, before turning around to pick off the encampments that surrounded Aarta one-by-one.
However, when they considered the task ahead of them, it was agreed to offer a parley. So the next day a tent was erected in an open area some 100 paces out of ballista range. Gillam and Erol joined Dhonyl in representing Aaren in support of Aarta, who had Commander Claitus and half of the Dicemvirate including Hakeem.
Finally, they got to meet Lord Spiros of Dalyria – a lean, snakelike man. On either side of him were two heavy-browed generals who said little.
And behind them, looking sheepish beside some priest, was the Marian rogue herself. Her eyes widened and a smile grew flashed her face when she saw them. Gillam realized he was scowling at her, but Erol was keeping a straight face and they kept up the act of not knowing one another for now.
The boasting and bickering went on for some hours. There seemed to be no resolution in sight. Voices grew in anger, and accusations flew.
And then, Lord Spiros stood, spread his arms, and implored them all for calm.
“Let us take a second, and calm down. Yes, be calm; we’re all friends here…” His voice was oddly soothing and Gillam felt it seep like honey in his ears as he repeated his sonorous words.
It was only when Erol whispered to him “What’s going on?” that Gillam snapped out of it and looked around the tent. All the others were slouching in their seats; even Kushlu’s body was slackening as she said, “He has a good point”.
Erol tapped Hakeem and Dhonyl on the shoulder. The Rabhanastrian immediately sat upright and quickly realized that something was wrong. He asked for a break, but Spiros answered, “I don’t think we should do that.”
Immediately, Dhonyl and the other resting participants repeated his words.
Claitus, who thankfully seemed to be himself, went to take Dhonyl by the arm, but the Lord of Aaren cried out, “Don’t you touch me!” and drew his sword.
Erol didn’t wait a moment longer and sent a flurry of arrows at Spiros’ face. He blocked them with his arms and ordered his general to deal with the archer. The man’s eyes reddened and skin blistered as he turned.
Gillam knew that he had to protect his lord and went to grab Dhonyl, even as he flailed wildly with his sword. As he held Dhonyl tight, he saw Phaedra approach Spiros and shout, “I killed your wife.” Spiros simply nodded with a look of amusement and barked an order to his man, Bessian.
Even among the confusion, it was hard to miss a man seemed to burst out of his own human skin and take the form of a great hulking ogre, tearing through the roof of the tent.
The other general went at Erol, but Claitus took him on while Erol continued his stream of arrows at Spiros. Bessian picked up Phaedra and began squeezing and shaking her and booming, “Submit”, as Wendika (he, too, reappeared at some point) struck blows at his side to minimal effect.
Gillam was desperate to get Dhonyl away, but the lord would not stop struggling. Finally, Gillam slapped him. It worked. Though this wasn’t a complete blessing. Dhonyl rose his hand to his cheek. “Did you just slap me?” Gillam had no time for it, pointing out the chaos behind them, before hurrying over to Vaprus and getting his lord mounted.
They heard a shout and an explosion that was familiar to Gillam. When he looked back, he saw Claitus in flames and no more general. Beyond the fire, Spiros was bloating up like the other demons before, and slaying men here and there with a spear.
Dhonyl fled, and Hakeem followed, just as Bessian roared in pain, and Phaedra arced from his grip with a broken sword glistening. Claitus rolled to the ground to pat out the fire but suddenly he was in the air, dangling from a barbed line. It was Spiros’ tongue, and it flung Claitus like a doll at Erol. The archer dodge but the commander was dead.
Spiros ordered Bessian on another charge, but the brute missed his target and kept on going… and going. This left them just the demon lord to finish and he was eventually brought down in a burst of fire.
The Dalyrian forces quickly withdrew after that and went back to their continuing petty civil war with Phyra. With Aarta saved, the Dicemvirate gave over a parcel of land to House Sandemar, and offered Gillam, Erol and Phaedra any reward of their choosing. Gillam simply took some greenhorns to join his academy. Erol asked for another paesh stone, which eventually one of the councilmen grudgingly gave him. But Phaedra shocked all of the Aaren contingent by requesting that a monetary offering be made to the Temple of the Steward. Whatever happened while she was abroad had clear addled her brain.
But really, it was good to see her back safe and sound. Gillam kept that thought to himself.