"I had a talk with a very interesting person." Chonaira told Katalos right off the bat just to see what the cultist's reaction would be. And as expected Katalos raised a brow and blurted out an enquirious 'whom'. When Chonaira told him she thought she saw confusion dance across his face, but it all flashed by so fast that she wasn't really certain it had actually been there.
"Old Ansafar, I assume."
"Then you assume right, Katalos."
"The old triple-crosser! Did he tell you to say hi to me?" the High Priestess laughed.
"No, I'm afraid not," the priestess admitted before sighing heavily. "I have to give that man credit, he's craftier that I realized."
Katalos shifted uneasily at that.
"For what it's worth, Your Holiness, I would never play his game. I'm doing this for the Mother, even if it can be seen as a long shot. I'm still on the hunt for The Promised Child. Even after so many years. I know that one day I'll find her and begin what I know must be done to save the world."
Chonaira nodded, knowing that he was telling the truth from his perspective and there was no use challenging him at the moment.
"For what it's worth, I don't really care what caused you to chose your path, all I need from you is your assurance that at this time, you fight for us," Chonaira demanded.
"Technically our 'friend' is fighting for Earth Mother Faith as well. But rest assured that regardless of my personal situation, I am a follower of the Mother first and foremost and I will do what needs to be done when the time comes."
"See that you do," Chonaira reminded him before pouring holy water in a silver bowl and reciting a magic formula upon it. Soon the silvery surface of the water appeared to split in shatters which faded and turned into an image, and the two clerics could now see a Steamroller speeding across a dust road in a steppe landscape, the sun shining off the bright blue paint.
"This engine is heading for Tirenoan," Chonaira told Katalos. "My foresight tells me it contains at least two Knights plus three other skilled fighters."
"Do you know who they are?" asked Katalos, trying not to be too conspicuous. The Priestess shook her head.
"No, but I don't believe anyone is connected to the regular war. What I don't know either is their intentions and I was hoping that you might be able to infer that."
Katalos looked at the vehicle in the bowl. The reception was rather bad, flickering and loosing focus, too many negative energies caused by the ongoing war, he suspected. The real fighting was going on not far from there.
"They're after us all," Katalos deduced. "But mainly me, they know that if I get what I'm aiming for, their faiths will have no future and their cause forfeit. If I get what I want there'll be no more Knights or Siblings."
Chonaira leaned back in her chair and steepled her hands in front of her face.
"What will they do afterwards if they succeed in their mission?"
"I don't know. But your responsibility to the Earth Mother Faith is clear. They must be eliminated because they could be a future threat to our faith," said the Cultist. The Priestess nodded her head.
"And if I gave that order, would you attack them?" Chonaira had to ask. Katalos considered it for several moments.
"I don't know," he finally admitted. "I certainly feel that if I attack them I'll be dead before nightfall, and that's definitely not part of my plans. Better letting the Solharan defense take care of them."
"But why should they care about the Mother's cult. They'd probably think it's just as well if we and the Demiurge people take out each other, then they won't have to bother."
"And what if I say there's a way to make them do that," Katalos smirked.
When a pale sun set that evening, hidden behind a hazy milkyness, the long awaited Tinmarothian main army finally arrived. And were they a sight to behold. Rows and rows of fighters on foot, on horseback and on terrain-vehicles and tricycles. Cannons, support convoys, fluttering banners in the Tinmaroth colours of yellow and blue. And above it all a large zeppelin air ship, also in the Tinmaroth colours and gleaming brass details shining in the air. Just that sight would've been enough to scare the wits out of the Solharans, Kelisone mused. As she maintained the front, Nakrian rode out to greet General Oxtoro of Tinmaroth.
"As commander of the Army of the Demiurge Alliance let me be the first to say thank you and welcome to the Alliance." Nakrian removed his battle glove and extended his hand.
"A Knight?" Oxtoro scoffed, rejecting his hand. "No wonder we are losing."
"I so happen to be a Gold Knight!" Nakrian eyes flared. "And you haven't been here! We chased Rania from the field, not you! That's what a Knight did."
"But you didn't chase him you stupid bourgeois," Oxtoro snorted arrogantly. "And we still have to fight him."
"We had hoped to have help from the honourable Tinmarothian army," Nakrian snarled in return. "But clearly if their generals are not honourable, I must wonder about the Tinmarothians."
"Whatever bourgeois," Oxtoro sighed nonchalantly. "I'm here to instruct you that I am taking command."
"What?" Nakrian became further enraged. "What gives you the right?"
Oxtoro took an empowered stance as he faced the blonde man.
"I am one of Queen Kleoko's most experienced and revered general and I was the one who brought this coalition together. I got the Zekarans and all the people of the Demiurge to fight on our side. Step aside!"
"Forget it!" Nakrian's sword hand itched as he considered attacking the Tinmarothian , but that would cause difficulties between his Alliance and the Tinmarothian army.
"So what do you intend to do, Knight? Stand in my way?"
"Let us discuss this with prince Salendar."
"Very well, I will respect the rights of royalties and appeal to him."
Within minutes all the higher officers were summoned to the large tent where prince Salendar had located his command centre. The gathered leaders of the Alliance included the prince himself and then there were Nakrian, Kelisone, Tavanika, Othiardan and Ilda. Then there were Zorias, Dersarende as well as commanders from the smaller groups in the Alliance. Kelisone sat down to the side, choosing to carefully observe the events.
"Good King Salendar, thank you for welcoming me," General Oxtoro stated boldly. "You have commanded admirably but I must say, I would love to put my experience to the test on this battlefield as I am the most able warrior here."
"What do you aim to say with that?" Salendar asked as he stroke his moustache.
"That I am taking command, since I'm the most experienced of this group," Oxtoro replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world that the others should subject to him.
"Knight Nakrian is way more able and he's been doing remarkably!" Tavanika spoke up immediately. Whatever Oxtoro didn't look directly at Tavanika, apparently the General viewed the Gold Knight not important enough for eye contact.
"This meeting is for important leaders. Who is your charge?" he replied. Tavanika furrowed her brow in surprise and failed to respond.
"Leave!" The general was now sneering. Prince Salendar cleared his troth silently. Oxtoro had a point that it was only supposed to be leaders here and he wanted to keep the peace. Surprised mixed with anger played along at the Gold Knight's face as she stood up to leave. Zorias was also forced to leave as well, however Kelisone and Nakrian stayed. Nakiran refused to go and Kelisone identified herself as the commander of the remnant of Sarentakar.
"I'm afraid Nakrian and Kelisone are not fit to command." Oxtoro then said. "Kelisone failed in Sarentakar and Nakrian is nothing more than a stupid bandit." Kelisone put her hand on Nakrian's shoulder to prevent him from tearing Oxtoro apart with his bare hands. And the gods knew it was in his physical power to do so.
"Nakrian has successfully chased Rania off the battlefield and…" Ilda began but Oxtoro interrupted:
"As I pointed out earlier, he did not give chase. If he had, this war would be over now."
"Yes, and possibly with us as the loosing team," Salendar replied with a solemn tone. "Nakrian has done well. He didn't want to put soldiers on risk for a wild goose chase up in the mountains. He's a good commander."
"Tinmaroth has commanded every military engagement that it has ever been involved with," Oxtoro refused to back down. "Like Purentankoro for instance. Tinmaroth has reputation, not to mention history on its side. So I say this, Tinmaroth will not fight under command of another leader."
"What do the Zekarans think?" Salendar asked with a solemn, dry voice.
"Nakrian has done an exellent job leading us," Dersarende replied. "He understand our ways of fighting, being of Tribal ancestry himself. We've done well in this battle, considering the size of Rania' army."
Othiardan however was still angry over the death of his comrade.
"Nakrian has failed! Under his reign the greatest Zekaran leader in our people's history, Arhandar has been assassinated! The Knight should be removed! The Eastern Zekarans will not fight under his command anymore!"
"Speak for yourself," Ilda returned. "You are free to leave if you so chose but I guarantee that several of the Easterners will stay with their western brothers – to avenge the fallen Arhandar among other things. That would after all have been Arhandar's will, and they know it. And so should you, Othiardan!"
Nakrian was furious. His command was being stripped because of that pompous ass named Othiardan, and the Tinmarothian king. Salendar knew that he had to give in. He might hold off Rania without the Tinmarothians, however if the Eastern Zekarans left it would cripple the army. Salendar thus relented.
"I'm sorry Nakrian," he said. "You have done well. But the Tinmarothian General Oxtoro will take command of the army."
Nakrian stood up and marched out before the sentence was finished and Oxtoro smiled.
"Alright, commanders prepare your army tonight." He smirked. "We'll go after Rania first thing tomorrow! We will end this war!"
"Are you insane!" Kelisone protested. "You do that and they will kill you all! Up in those mountains where Rania is hidden, they can literally litter the place with ambushes. Every cave, every brush thicket, every corner could hold Solharans just waiting to strike out at unexpected fighters. Now, this is the stupidest idea I've heard!"
"Kelisone, for speaking out against me," King Oxtoro coldly stated, "I hereby command your dismissal from the forces!"
"You cannot do that," Kelisone snided. "I am here in my own right, as a leader of the remaining Sarentakarite forces. If you dismiss me – us – I am certain more will follow. You will have mutinity within moments, Oxtoro."
"Are you threatening me, Sarentakarite?" Oxtoro began but prince Salendar spoke up.
"No! I still retain overall command! I will not have Kelisone dismissed. She is the hero who has saved us today. I can't let you do that!"
"I will leave this army if she is dismissed." Dersarende said.
"If she leaves we to go home." Othiardan added.
"I too will not fight in the army that shuts out Sarentakar." Ilda also added. King Oxtoro knew he could not win this battle so he nodded once.
"Very well. But I want her out of command."
"She would be a great help to us," Dersarende said.
"No. She will leave command." General Oxtoro grunted. "I will not fight with that seditious woman. Oh, and Nakrian, he stays, Tavanika too. His medical skills are too valuable. If they leave they will be considered deserters and will be fugitives to this army."
Kelisone walked up close to the General, standing face to face with him. Oxtoro was forced to back away from the cold glance of the Gold Knight.
"Nakrian and Tavanika are Gold knights, you do better to remember that you have no command over them. Or any other of the Knighthood either."
"What do you think you're doing now?"
"Looking into the eyes of the man who is signing the death warrants of the entire army." Kelisone responded.
Oxtoro waited for a moment. Then he unsheathed his sword. Salendar extended his hand.
"Kelisone please, we cannot fight Rania and the Tinmarothians."
"Fine," Kelisone scoffed. "Have it your way then, I still say it's madness attacking the mountains."
It was now rather late in the night, the dance had lasted for more than three hours but the floor was still as jam-packed with people as it had been when Resmandra had returned to the party. Almost when she had started to give up hope, Erkander had been there, asking for a dance. Nothing more than a dance, still it brought heaven down to Resmandra. As Erkander whirled her about in his arms, Resmandra allowed herself to feel the desire she had thought long dead. This is how it was meant to be. Blessed Mother, but she loved him still!
Laughing, she abandoned herself to the music, too caught up in the joy of the moment to feel anything else.
Until she caught sight of Valona, dancing in the arms of a handsome young aristocrat. Erkander's wife flirted and laughed with her companion, but Resmandra could detect the falseness beneath her glittering mask, though she doubted if anyone else could. Valona was wearing a daringly low cut deep purple gown, and jewels flashed at ears, neck, arms, nose, lips, brows and ankles. A shiver went through Resmandra when she recalled that tonight was the night of the Summer Solstice, the night of the dark moon, when the Dark Goddess' power was at its height.
As if reading her thoughts, Valona lifted her head and stared directly at Resmandra. In her half-lidded eyes gleamed malice so great that it was a wonder her eyes didn't smolder. Resmandra returned her gaze without flinching, and smiled coolly. Beware little bitch! Come after me and you'll learn what it means to be out of your league, transmitted the stare she gave the other woman.
Their gaze was broken by the whirling of the dance, but Resmandra was icy cold, all the joy drained out of her. Erkander sensed her withdrawal, and halted abruptly.
"My feet are killing me," Resmandra lied swiftly, keeping her face averted, for she was a terrible liar and one look at her face and he would know of her deception.
"Why don't you sit down?" he suggested, guiding her back to the table. "I'll go and get you something to drink."
As soon as he had disappeared among the crowd, Resmandra rose and made her way across the hall to where Erkander had stationed his bodyguards. The officer on duty, Theka, was a woman she knew from earlier, she had been on the guard detail already back when she had already been together with Erkander.
"Hello, Resmandra!" the tall and striking woman greeted her cheerfully. "Enjoying yourself?"
"Yes. Too bad you got stuck working."
"Just my luck." The other shrugged. "But at least I'm stationed inside, where I can enjoy watching the party, if not joining in it. Besides, someone's got to keep all these drunken merrymakers in line! And when I go off my shift, I'll sure drink my toast to the happy cople as well."
"True. But they may not be the only ones you have to worry about."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that there is one among us here who's a follower of the Dark Arts. Very soon now I will expose her for what she is, and I want you guys to be prepared for any trouble."
"Do Zardinek and Levone know of this?"
"No, not yet. Have no fear, no harm will come to them that I promise you." Resmandra assured her. "This is not their fight. But my Power cannot protect everyone. I depend upon you to guard the others here, for there's no telling what she might do once she is exposed. So be ready for anything."
"As you command, Lady." Theka saluted sharply. "We'll be ready." Then she turned to inform the rest of her squad.
Resmandra hurried back to the table, where she discovered Erkander searching for her, wineglass clutched in one fist.
"Here you are! I was wondering where you had gone."
"Just needed to go to the ladies room," Resmandra made up.
"Come, the gifts are about to be presented."
She took the proffered glass and sipped at it, wishing the sweet wine had the power to soothe her battle-tensed nerves. All of her senses, both physical and psychic, were strained to the outmost, as she sensed that Valona would strike soon. She did her best to keep Erkander from noticing, though she had the feeling that his sharp eyes missed nothing, the way he kept staring at her.
"Come, let us not keep everyone waiting," she said with false cheer and made her way through the crowd to the top of the dais where Zardinek and Levone were now seated. Soon people began to file up, each giving the couple a gift.
Some of the gifts were simple: a basket of candies and cakes from the baker, books, wine, a wind-up music box, glassware and bed clothes. Others were more elaborate: silver goblets, necklaces, a grandparent clock, a beautifully carved wooden chest of oak. Levone's parents gave the couple a beautifully set of imported china and silver utensils. The detail was exquisite. From the guard colleagues came gifts of finely crafted bows and quivers of arrows, daggers, and bow guards and bracers. Erkander presented the couple with two suits of armor, masterpieces of the smith's art.
"From Valona and I. Use them well."
Then Resmandra presented her gift, a full view mirror with an elaborated frame, which she had had made especially for the couple. Finally Zardinek's father Zerthanen presented his gift, and for that one they all had to go outside, because he's gift was a brand new and red lacquered Steamcar, and that one evoked all 'ah's and 'oh's imaginable.
Nakrian was outside his tent when he saw Kelisone coming astride, red faced in rage.
"He's a damn moron!" Kelisone replied. "Asshole, arrogant son of a…"
"Kelisone, it's alright. Take it easy."
"No Nakrian!" Kelisone shot a dark look at her knight-colleague. "It is not all right! I won't take it easy! I'd like to go back to the good old days where I would skin him alive!"
"I know how you feel." Nakrian grasped Kelisone's shoulder. "So what's going to happen?"
"General Oxtoro has ordered an attack first thing tomorrow."
"Up in the mountains? Demiurge, but is he all insane?!" Nakrian groaned in angry frustration. "One night's sleep would not be enough for those that marched all day! To just mention one problem with that plan!"
"That's what he said. On top of that I've been ordered to leave command in this army!"
"Morons! So you and Tavanika need company?"
"You can't come with me." Kelisone shook her head. " You'll be considered fugitives."
"What?" Nakrian groaned exasperated. "What gives him the right to think he can command Knights?"
"I'm asking you."
"Well, we better abide – for the time being. We can't fight internally when we have a common enemy. I'll deal with Oxtoro later. If I have to that is. Rania's men might as well do the job for me."
"Fine." Kelisone replied curtly. "I hope to see that pig die."
"Don't worry about him," Nakrian replied. "Just concentrate on what we're going to do to keep Rania from conquering Arcadia."
"And what's that?"
Nakrian had no words to answer that. Even as they finished talking, preparations were already beginning for the attack on Rania who had withdrawn with his army into the mountainous area north of the steppe.
Kelisone bid the other Knight good night and then she returned to her tent, still with her mind overflowing with emotions varying from worry to rage, and she knew that sleep would fail her this night. Things were going to go way wrong up there in those mountains, and there was no way she could convince this obnoxious general that this was not the way to go. This was the highway to disaster for the Demiurge alliance!