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48. In command again
Tavanika rode at the head of the army and reclaimed command of it. They'd been through hell and back and everyone bore the look of it. Now they turned to her to take charge again. She felt uneasy at being in command again, it had all happened too fast and now were all those lives once again resting on her shoulder. These women and men had fought two battles. The first, where Tavanika was in command, had been – if not a victory, so not a defeat either. In the second battle, she had been replaced by the conceited and imprudent Tinmarothian General Oxtoro and they had suffered a massive defeat. The Gold Knight was now their commander again, like it or not.
She was riding ahead of the large crowd when suddenly one scout on horse-back appeared in a cloud of dust.
"It's Kelisone!" the young woman shouted on top of her lungs. Tavanika rose her brows and picked up her binoculars. And sure, there was Kelisone, galloping towards the marching army ahead of a small group of followers.
"It su
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Literature
47. The hooded rider
"What in the name of the Demiurge are we doing here?" asked Skermon exasperated as he looked around in the ruins of what had once been one of Eastern Arcadia's greatest cities. "I already know what will take place here and I know there's no possible chance to prevent what happens without the timeline skewing off into a radical tangent of unpredictable outcomes. It's too risky."
"Is it?" asked Lord Ganrion with a smug grin on his face.
"Yes, it is and you of all people should know the dangers of messing with this kind of magic, Gold Knight," the Sibling said angrily. "I learned that lesson the hard way when I was first came here and if I had known then what I know now, I would've had second thoughts about initiating this venture."
"You have a point," Ganrion conceded solemnly. "Knowing the road ahead is never a good thing, no matter what happens. Even seeing the road that you originally helped pave become twisted and distorted by those out for their own ends hurts just as much. But that
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Literature
46. The battle in the valley
Tavanika was among the fighters of the Petroken unit when the bullets came. She took two, only her Gold Knight powers saving her. However hundreds of warriors fell across the battlefield. Tavanika cursed as she realized that the Solharans had been expecting them. They had known all the time, they must've had a spy inside the lines of the Demiurge Alliance. Now, that was not unheard of, but that this spy should've been able to sneak out so fast, and get to this place in such good time for a heavy preparation, now that was odd. Unless the spy had magic means of travel or communicate. Magic neither she nor her fellow knights had been able to discover.
However, now was the time for some of her own magic. Some tricks she had learned once and hidden away for moments like this. This was not effortless, far from it, but dire time took dire deeds. She told the nearest two fighters to watch over her and then she crouched low, so that she could reach the ground with her right hand. There she conc
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Literature
45. Live Live Live!
Before Resmandra could move to pursue Valona she heard a low sobbing voice behind her.
"Zardinek! No! You can't die, not now!"
Spinning around, she saw to her horror Levone crouched over the body of a mortally wounded Zardinek, who had been without the protection of an amulet when the dark magic had struck. Splinters of magically tainted steel had hit him in several places and he was bleeding severely. Levone stared up at Resmandra, tears streaking her face, painting black rivulets of make up on pale cheeks.
"Resmandra . . .you can help him . . .can't you?"
The Mother Priestess stared down at her fallen friend, jaw clenched grimly. Rage burned in her, rage hotter than the fires of the Steamgod's smelteries. Valona had done this. And by all that she held dear, the treacherous bitch would pay. She would seek the dark one out, rend her with her Power, and break her on the sword of her empathy.
"Resmandra, please!"
Levone's frantic cry snapped her out of her trance. Rage was forgotten. Rev
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Literature
44. Dark power
Resmandra's teeth ached from clenching them, for the sense of imminent danger was growing as the party rolled on. This all felt so unfair! All those people were having so much fun, they were dancing and singing, amusing themselves. Drinking and singing and carousing. Rejoicing in the manifestation of true love between Zardinek and Levone as well as mingling about with good friends. And upon none of these happy faces did she trace a single tick of fear. But she knew that they would soon all learn it as the madness broke loose. And there was little she could do to prevent it.
It didn't take long before all hell and then some broke out. As Resmandra watched from her place to the side, Lady Valona moved forward, towards the bridal couple on the dais. Her green gown was shimmering, her hands clutching a small package wrapped in glossy, pink paper and a bow in the same colour. She slid up to the newlyweds with all the sinuous grace of a cobra that spies her prey awaiting her on a rock. Resma
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Literature
43. The obstinate general
"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 no
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oroladian
Italy

Children of Arcadia - starting this all over again.

Well after sort of running into the wall with my steam fantasy tale Children of Arcadia I took it down from here a while back. Then I've rewritten most of it, cleared out a bit side stories and characters that were never going anywhere and concentrated on the main history and lesser persons. Because it never got epic, just complicated. And now with this second try I actually feel it's getting better than before. 

So here we go again - enjoy Children of Arcadia reloaded - lol! oroladian.deviantart.com/art/T…

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Tavanika rode at the head of the army and reclaimed command of it. They'd been through hell and back and everyone bore the look of it. Now they turned to her to take charge again. She felt uneasy at being in command again, it had all happened too fast and now were all those lives once again resting on her shoulder. These women and men had fought two battles. The first, where Tavanika was in command, had been – if not a victory, so not a defeat either. In the second battle, she had been replaced by the conceited and imprudent Tinmarothian General Oxtoro and they had suffered a massive defeat. The Gold Knight was now their commander again, like it or not.

She was riding ahead of the large crowd when suddenly one scout on horse-back appeared in a cloud of dust.
"It's Kelisone!" the young woman shouted on top of her lungs. Tavanika rose her brows and picked up her binoculars. And sure, there was Kelisone, galloping towards the marching army ahead of a small group of followers.
"It sure is," Tavanika grinned. She knew at the very least, this very Knight could lift the spirits of her soldiers.

Not much later Kelisone approached Tavanika and the blonde woman extended her hand, welcoming her fellow Knight back into the army.
"Where's the damn Tinmaroth General?" Kelisone asked without further ceremonies.
"That fool was last seen surrounded by the Army of Solhara." Tavanika responded. "He had a chance to escape, but he foolishly charged Rania. Naturally he bit the dust. The rest of the army barely made it."

"Listen, Tavanika, you're looking at this as a total defeat," Kelisone said quietly so the others couldn't hear her. "Don't do that. Speak to the army. Call it a rear guard action; use it to rally the fighters…"
"I hadn't thought of that. Thanks!" Tavanika nodded. The two warriors saluted each other once before Tavanika urged her horse forward. When she was in front of her warriors she turned her mount and stared into the defeated eyes of the army before having her herald sounding his horn.

"Listen… We've suffered a terrible trounce. But… we are not defeated." The soldiers looked at her with surprise as Tavanika continued. "The mistake was made, but it wasn't by any of you. No, every single one of you people did your very best, you gave it all, your heart. You stood when the time counted. The defeat was our own. However, the Tinmarothian General Oxtoro saw his error. I saw him as he looked around at the slaughter, but he didn't give up. No, not at all. You are saying he foolishly threw his life way, and that is what the leaders of the Solharans are probably saying right now. Calling him the fool of Tinmaroth. But that isn't what I saw. I saw a man who knew that he had to save the army that he'd endangered. So, Oxtoro bravely clasped his polearm and he charged at Rania himself! Why? He knew he wasn't going to defeat the Solharan, that wasn't meant to be. He did it for one reason."

"Because without his action," Tavanika went on, "the entire army would have been surrounded and destroyed. Mistakes were made, and I'm honest about them. But, Oxtoro gave us the chance to try again, and we will try again. This war isn't over, and we aren't defeated. Yes the hour is dark for Arcadia, but it has been dark before. And before, just like now, the people of Arcadia stand strong, and I stand with you. And most of all, the Demiurge stands beside us! Oxtoro's sacrifice won't be in vain, we still have a chance to win this war."

"How can we stand against the waste numbers of the Solharan?" a voice in the crowd was heard.
"We can because we must." Tavanika continued. "But we won't stand alone. I won't allow the Steamgod followers destroying this land that our people have built for thousands of years. I won't allow Solhara to do to all of Arcadia what they did to Sarentakar. Will you stand with me?"

The people stood motionless. No one wanted to react. They each doubted within themselves the ability to fight. The uneasiness of Tavanika grew as the army did not act.
"I'm with you," a clearly ringing voice was heard in the silence. Tavanika now saw Othiardan emerging from the crowd. She waited, and then came another voice. "I'll stand with Tavanika and Othiardan." It was Dersarende.

Soon the two Zekaran tribes raised their rifles and their swords. Emboldened by the stand of the Zekarans swords and rifles went up one by one at first, then finally the rest of the army raised their weapons each declaring that they would stand by Tavanika.

Tavanika had commanded the army because she'd been appointed by King Salendar, and she'd lost it just like that. In a way, she never really commanded the army, not until now. Because now the army had chosen her and hence they were now finally and truly behind her, it wasn't a desperate plea to her to save their lives from the doom of Solhara; instead it was a pledge of honour. They would rally beside her against the enemy. The Demiurge Alliance would stand, and it would fight!

***

A hand on her shoulder made Resmandra start.
"I think you'd better sit down, dear." Levone ordered quietly, but with a commander's implacable tone. "You're white as a sheet. Healing Zardinek can't have been easy. You need to rest."

Resmandra allowed herself to be led to a chair. She slumped gratefully into it. Levone sat down next to her, a tired wrinkle upon her forehead.
"I know I don't have to say this, but... thank you for saving Zardinek. If I'd lost him..."
"I know." Resmandra laid a soothing hand on the other woman's shoulder. "Believe me, I know. Erkander..."
"You love him, don't you?"
"He's the other half of me."
"Then why don't you..." Levone halted, blushing crimson. "I'm sorry, it's none of my business. Sometimes my mouth runs ahead of my brain."

"Why don't we do something about it?" Resmandra finished. "It's a fair question. But... He's a married man."
"He doesn't love his wife," Levone snorted. "Their marriage was one of convenience, a business deal. He needed the money, she needed the glory a senator's wife would add to her business legend. These are the things memoirs are written about. But not – love. Why do you think they have remained childless all of those years by the way?"
"As you said earlier, that's none of my business. Besides, after what I did to him five years ago, Erkander no longer trusts me."

"But Zardinek told me you had no choice, it was the will of the gods that you left him then." Her friend protested. "You made a great sacrifice."
"True, I just wished I had been able to tell Erkander about it. Tell him that the Mother called me to her, because I was with child and the Mother has special plans for this child. Plans which included keeping her safe the first years, because there were evil people out to get her. The mother wanted to save her. It was only that, I never got the chance to explain."
"Men! Question is if he would've understood. They think they hold the monopoly on sacrifice! Let a man do what you did, they'd fall all over themselves calling him noble and a hero. But let a woman sacrifice herself, now that's another story. Someone ought to pour a bucket of ice water over his head. Maybe then he'll see sense."

"Maybe I'll try it."
"Try what?" Zardinek asked, sitting down beside Levone. Resmandra was pleased to note that the colour of his cheeks was much better.
"Pour buckets of ice water over certain people's heads." Levone answered.
"Not mine, I hope. I've had just about enough for one night."
"I'd never do such a thing to you!" Levone looked horrified. Then she added slyly, "Not right away, anyway."
"Thank you so much, beloved. And speaking of thanks..." he turned to the priestess.

"Don't please." Resmandra held up a hand. "It is I who owe you an apology for Valona ruining your wedding. If I'd acted sooner..."
"Don't be ridiculous!" Zardinek scolded. "Her actions weren't your responsibility. She chose her own path, as did we all. You of all people couldn't be hold responsible for her choosing the wrong path. You weren't even in Arithinea when she started down that road, for Steamgod's sake! Besides, I haven't been to a wedding yet where there hasn't been some kind of brawl. Last one I was at, the kitchen caught fire. Now there was a real disaster! So I'd say this one was almost... ordinary."

Before Resmandra could reply, she heard a familiar voice call:
"Zardinek! There you are, thanks to the Steamgod!"
"What?" the bodyguard swirled around, facing Cirek who was pale in the face.
"It's Erkander, sir! He's been shot!"
"What in the name of the Demiurge are we doing here?" asked Skermon exasperated as he looked around in the ruins of what had once been one of Eastern Arcadia's greatest cities. "I already know what will take place here and I know there's no possible chance to prevent what happens without the timeline skewing off into a radical tangent of unpredictable outcomes. It's too risky."
"Is it?" asked Lord Ganrion with a smug grin on his face.
"Yes, it is and you of all people should know the dangers of messing with this kind of magic, Gold Knight," the Sibling said angrily. "I learned that lesson the hard way when I was first came here and if I had known then what I know now, I would've had second thoughts about initiating this venture."
"You have a point," Ganrion conceded solemnly. "Knowing the road ahead is never a good thing, no matter what happens. Even seeing the road that you originally helped pave become twisted and distorted by those out for their own ends hurts just as much. But that's why we have to make a stand now."

Skermon looked at the immortal ruefully.
"I made a stand while you hung back and did nothing while this was happening," said Skermon. "I'm disgusted with myself now that I'm here!" he looked around at the ruins of Sarentakar, feeling his heart ache at the energies of death and pain which still lingered in this place.
"You have a right to hate me, but you have no right to judge me," Ganrion replied dismissively.
"Tulavia was right; I should be fighting in Tirenoan several miles from here. Plant my feet and not be worried about what is to come," Skermon lamented.

"Are you regretting your decision, Sibling?" asked Ganrion.
"No. Since you have not told me why we are here yet."
"Yours is not to wonder why. It will be made clear come time."
"Stop speaking in riddles, Knight. I do not appreciate that behavior nor am I impressed by it."
"Then just come along!" Ganrion replied, barely turning. Then he lead the way across the ruined streets where ivy slowly conquered fallen rubble, and up to what had once been the main square of the city. There stood an oddly intact house. And what more, a light shone from one of the windows.
"We are here," Ganrion nodded to Skermon.  

"And here is?"
"Where we meet one essential person!" Ganrion replied, still without looking at the Sibling, instead he pushed up the wooden door, entered the building and started up the two stairs, then not unexpectedly lead the way to what appeared to be the place of the lit window. Stopping in front of a heavy door he knocked hard on it and a muffled voice was heard from inside. Thus Ganrion opened the door and entered a room where a few people were gathered around a table with a large map upon. One of them, a young but worn man with prematurely graying hair, rose from his seat as Ganrion and Skermon stepped inside.

"Knight Salatier I presume," Ganrion asked.
"What on earth?" Salatier thought aloud, bewildered. His attention then turned to the two individuals in front of him and he took up a briefly defensive posture before suddenly grabbing a gun from the table.
"I come in peace, but I have no idea about him," said Skermon, rising his arms. The Knight wrinkled his brow.
"Do I know you, you look familiar?"

"Who I am is not important," Ganrion shook his head. "What is important though is that in just a few days from now, the fate of the world will be decided in the field of battle and Sarentakar will very much be a part of it. And it needs a leader," said Lord Ganrion. Salatier groaned heavily and rubbed the bridge of his hawky nose.
"Gentlemen, Sarentakar is dead. We who remain here do so only because we have turned to banditry. And this place, believed to be haunted by the peasants surrounding it, is the perfect hiding place."
"Sarentakar will rise again," Ganrion insisted.
"Yes, but by then I and mine will be long gone."

"Perhaps. But before that happen you can make a difference."
"How?"
"There's a one man and one woman who both have to be stopped. The man is the easy part. His name is Katalos..."
"Katalos…" said one of the people by the table, a lithe fair haired woman."I know that name, the mad Mother Cultist. His name came up already in the beginning of the war."
"Katalos is a Knight, Kyra." Salatier turned to the woman with lifted brows.
"Not anymore," Skermon confirmed. "Kyra here is right. He's abolished Knighthood more than a decade ago."
"You must kill him," Lord Ganrion insisted to Salatier's surprise. Salatier looked up at his fellow knight with intensity in his eyes.

"No, you should know that, Golden One. Knights don't kill our own," he swore. Lord Ganrion's eyes narrowed at him.
"He's no Knight anymore, didn't I just tell you. He has sworn that off, to convert to this extreme part of the Earth Mother faith." Lord Ganrion insisted. "Right now other Knights lead by Saturnine are already engaged in combat with him."
"Saturnine, hmmm... They'll stop him, yes, but they won't kill him," Salatier said, knowingly. "Yes we are Knights, but we are more than that, we are a family. And our family sticks together no matter what happens to any of its members."
"That counts for Saturnine and Tulavia as well I presume," Ganrion said.
"Indeed, but..."
"See, I still need your services so let's go."

"Wait," Salatier said. "If Katalos is the easy part, then who's the hard part? A woman you said?"
"Her name is Silona, servant of the Midnight Lady. Former Senator of this town. She and her sister Valona are taking advantage of this confusion to conquer the world, and if they succeed, our general religious skirmishes can be seen as a kindergarten snowball fight."

Without further notice Lord Ganrion then turned and headed out the door, passing Skermon.
"And what about you, Sibling?" Salatier asked. "What's your place in this game?"
"Just a common pawn," Skermon answered with a skewed grin. "Although I've been seeing more during these six years than earlier in my almost 30 year long career as a Sibling."

"And why are you with him?" asked Salatier nodding to the door where Ganrion had left. Skermon rubbed his shut eyelids and then looked up at the Knight.
"I don't know anymore," said the Sibling exasperated. "What in the name of the Demiurge are we supposed to do now? The world's about to end and it's too late to do anything about it!"
"We'll do as the old immortal says. To begin with," Salatier replied and then he turned to Kyra. "You come with us. Berla and Goron, you stay here until further notice," he addressed the other two in the room.

"Are you serious?" said Skermon at a loss. The Knight nodded his aquiline head.
"You bet I am. I still haven't forgot why I once became a knight. To serve the good, even if it has been quite hard to discern in the mess which the world has been plunged into over the last year. But I will do my best, that was the oath I once gave. And I believe you've done something similar once, Sibling."
"I did indeed," he agreed absent-mindedly and followed Salatier out. And behind them the woman Kyra took up the rear.

***

While the rest of the army was retreating Kaya threw herself into the thong of Tinmarothians swinging her swords, killing anyone around her. The Tinmarothians were mad with bloodlust as they cut soldiers down while swords came at them from all angles. Kaya took a slight cut to the shoulder when she decapitated the soldier who had sliced her.

The fighters of Tinmaroth were dying in numbers while the Army of Solhara closed in for the final kill. But the Tinmarothians refused to budge, fighting like mad. The few remaining Tinmarothian soldiers fought back to back cutting down as many soldiers as they could. However the weight of the enemy army was too much even for them. After another minute there was only the General himself standing. He was dripping blood on the ground. The Solharan fighters backed off as the General of Tinmaroth stood their defiantly.

"Do you surrender?" Rania called out to him.
"Tinmaroth never surrender!" General Oxtoro shouted while spitting blood.
"No, they die." Rania replied. He then pulled his gun and fired off a single bullet right between Oxtoro's eyes.

***

Resmandra knew in an instant that Erkander had been wounded, it howled through her like an icy wind. She also knew that Valona was dead, that fact was chilling in its finality. Exhausted she pushed herself to her feet. People still milled about the great hall, huddled together in frightened knots, speaking in fearful whispers of dark sorcery and witchcraft.
"But the Lady will protect us," one woman was saying to another. "She drove the witch out."
"Do you truly think so?"
"Of course."

The young priestess wanted to weep. Such confidence they had in her power to work miracles. They would never know how close she had come to failing. Her power had hardly been enough. Only an odd strike of luck had prevented Valona from turning her wrath upon the helpless partygoers and instead choosing to run off. They would hopefully never know how close they came to death this night, Resmandra figured as she shuddered.

***

"Captain Sre?" said Chonaira as she entered the small room.
"Yes ma'am?" came the response from the woman who was scrutinizing a crossbow.
"We're leaving," she ordered.
"Aye aye!" Sre replied and put the weapon down. She knew what was coming, she was drilled for this, she didn't need to ask.

***  

On the border of Solhara an enormous Steamroller was engaging the perimeter defense, annihilating the border soldiers as if they had been nothing but mosquitoes.

***

While the remaining Alliance army retreated to Petroken, Tavanika sought out prince Salendar. The Prince stood up in surprise, facing the blood covered Gold Knight.
"Are you alright?" he asked with concern.
"I'm fine," Tavanika replied. "It's not my blood. Nevertheless we have to leave now! The battle is lost and the enemy will be here shortly!"
"The Tinmarothians?"
"All perished. Nakrian told us thus – it was a suicide mission."
"Oxtoro as well."
"Shot in the head by Rania himself," Tavanika replied before she saluted the prince and turned around, to go wash herself off all the blood and gore covering her.

The prince was not one to be told twice. He got up and sent for his advisors, preparing to leave. Meanwhile Tavanika quickly washed and redressed before she rejoined Nakrian and helped reorganizing the army for a retreat. Salendar rejoined them as they left in a hurry to abandon the highlands and return towards the steppe even as the marching of the returning Army of Solhara could be heard behind them. They army left going south of the Dry Lake while Rania was nearing it from the north. The Demiurge Alliance may have been defeated, but the war was not over. Tinmaroth had more troops coming their way and the other nations still had reinforcements to send. Tavanika and her fighting body would battle again. This war wasn't over.

***

While the day moved into evening and the shadows grew lengthier, General Rania was seeking solitude on a hilltop a bit away from the main army. He needed to think things over, plan ahead the further draws, and some of this thinking he did best on his own. What he hadn't expected was that he was followed. He had barely sat down when there was a movement among the trees in front of him.

"Who's there?" his hand moved to the gun in the holster, but without taking it out.
"A friend," the spruce branches were pushed aside and a tall woman in black leather became visible. A woman the general knew.
"Pomnara!" he stared in surprise at the witch and servant of the Midnight Lady.
"Well done Rania," she replied, smiling at this victory "I was worried about those Knights Kelisone and Tavanika, but you handled them well."

"Kelisone wasn't even there," Rania rolled his eyes. "It was some Tinmarothian fool. He didn't last long."
"My presence will not be hidden from the Knights much longer," Pomnara's tone got serious. "Ansafar is aware of all this, at least somewhat, thankfully Lord Ganrion has cast him out of the Order so he has no influence. I can take care of him. You need to move tonight, don't settle in. Eliminate the Eastern Zekarans and then move east for Ethonen and Manirea."
"I don't need a nag, Pomnara!" Rania replied angrily as he took one step forward. "I know what I have to do!"

"Whoa, easy big fella. If you don't hurry, the Demiurge followers will organize and army equal or greater than the one you just defeated. The Zekarans must be defeated, take the heart out of the tribal nations."
"I disagree." Rania shook his head. Pomnara zeroed her eyes in on the defiant Solharan. "I know Kelisone." The general maintained his cool. "The Sarentakarite Gold Knight. She'd anticipate the move on the Zekarans."

"Kelisone doesn't command the Demiurge army," reasoned Pomnara.
"No, that Tinmarothian did," Rania responded. "Now, when he's dead, Kelisone will take command. Aside from that, their army is not weak and their best leaders are among them. We only defeated and killed the Tinmarothian General. However Tavanika, Zorias, and Dersarende are still alive, not to mention the old Gold Knight Nakrian. Yet at the very moment we can destroy them."

"Stupid Solharan!" Pomnara shook her head in disdain. "And I, who thought you had learned one or two things about tactics. The correct path is to go to the Western Zekarans and destroy their municipals, that'll take the heart out of the tribals; they're the key to this enemy army."
"Insanity," Rania scolded. "You think that Zekarans losing their families will devastate them into uselessness? No, that will motivate the Zekarans to fight harder instead. Yes, they are the key to the army, so I'll hit them. Not their families."

"Get real, Rania," Pomnara snapped at him. "You know as well as I do that if we attack the Zekara, their fighters will rush off back home and abandon the alliance!"
"You think so?" He scratched his beginning stubble.
"I know it."
"Fine. We'll be going to the Zekaran Villages," he then commanded. "But don't blame me if this plan of yours doesn't work!"

***

"Katalos," said Zargou. "Mother knows I don't want to have to do this to you, but you and your team are going to have to withdraw shortly."
"What?" enquired a dismayed Katalos. "Just give me a little bit more time and we can route them!"
"There's no more time for that anymore, wizard. We gave you your shot, now you better start to pull your troops out. You've got fifteen minutes and then it'll be too late."

Katalos regarded the other man for a few heartbeats, before asking:
"You're doing something, right? Big time magic?"
"That I am not under any liberty to say. Just take my advice if you value your lives!"

The wizard shrugged in defeat before taking up his bullhorn:
"Nateira, fall back!"
"They'll never trust you for as long as they live," said a new voice which resulted in Katalos drawing all his attention towards a stranger on horseback who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
"And who exactly are you?" He asked the new arrival.
"You could never trust anyone, we both know that and we both know why," the stranger remarked. "After what happened in Sarentakar…"
"Sarentakar, what's it got to do..." Katalos began before it dawned upon him as he regarded the rider who was dressed in a dark blue hooded cloak and who's body seemed so scrawny that Katalos almost doubted there was anyone  there. "...you!"

"You do remember..." the hooded rider remarked.
"I do... but..."
"Let's just say I found the child. It just took the death of a foolish woman."
"Where?"
"Where you'd least expected it. In the City of the Steamgod."
"Here?"
"No, the other one!"
"Aritanea!"

"Yes and they took her from us," the hooded one told him. "That is why they must all perish. They must die so that she may live."
Katalos considered his words before shaking his head.
"No, I won't accept that," he responded. "Knights don't kill their own."
"I don't blame you," the hooded one confessed. "But after all these years, I've come to the conclusion that there are no other options. Help me take over the Earth Mother faith as well as the Knight order and we'll rule Arcadia with an iron fist and we will never have to fear losing her again."

Again came silence came from Katalos while he considered what was said. He then happened to glance out over the battle again, showing Tulavia now being attacked by Anthergar, Dersia and Taranaxas before Saturnine caused them to veer off and then joined Tulavia to chase after them. That was when a broad smile broke out across his face and he began laughing.
"So what's your decision?" asked the hooded one finally.
"You've lost your way, my friend, revealing the whereabouts of the child to me. Aratinea! Now, we do not need this place anymore," Katalos declared angrily as he jumped into his steamroller again.
"Then you're a fool and will die as such!" snarled the hooded one. "Just you wait..."
Tavanika was among the fighters of the Petroken unit when the bullets came. She took two, only her Gold Knight powers saving her. However hundreds of warriors fell across the battlefield. Tavanika cursed as she realized that the Solharans had been expecting them. They had known all the time, they must've had a spy inside the lines of the Demiurge Alliance. Now, that was not unheard of, but that this spy should've been able to sneak out so fast, and get to this place in such good time for a heavy preparation, now that was odd. Unless the spy had magic means of travel or communicate. Magic neither she nor her fellow knights had been able to discover.

However, now was the time for some of her own magic. Some tricks she had learned once and hidden away for moments like this. This was not effortless, far from it, but dire time took dire deeds. She told the nearest two fighters to watch over her and then she crouched low, so that she could reach the ground with her right hand. There she concentrated and began to pull up the energy resting beneath the crust of the Earth and haul it up towards herself, using the magic channeling she had learned once as a new Gold Knight.

She used her own body as a medium and while the fight raced around her, those who could see in the magic spectre noted how Tavanika's body began to glow with a fierce, yellow sheen. The yellow whitened and turned electric blue and began to sparkle around her, and filled with these energies Tavanika raised. She was now not herself but transformed into a vessel of Earth energy. And if asked about it later she would remember very little about what she actually had done and what had taken place meanwhile. Including the pain which would've been almost unbearable had she been fully conscious. Now she was barely aware of anything but a faint, distant throbbing which felt that it really had nothing to do with her but was connected to somebody else.

Raising her hands she started to pull at those energies in earnest, felt them flow through her magical body, triggering her chakras and flow like a pillar of fire up from her crown chakra and then propagate out on the sides and split up in hundreds of sole firebolts which began showering the enemy army. Trough her magic hearing Tavanika could hear Rania shout the commands to fall back and regroup. The musketeers ducked as the firebolts started to rain over them, setting their clothes and hair on fire and causing their gunpowder to explode and fire off in all directions, adding to the damage.

"Now!" she called out as the energy flow died down in her. Still dizzy from magic and adrenaline Tavanika unsheathed her sword as the front lines neared each other. Her voice drowned when the fighters shouted as the two groups met head on. Tavanika sliced a woman across her chest turning to upper slice another in the face before she kicked a third soldier in his head. She followed through with a stab through the heart killing him, then pulling the sword out she slashed another soldier in the abdomen.

Under heavy attack she pulled her dagger with her left hand, slicing a throat of a soldier. Her sword in her right and dagger in her left The Gold Knight twirled around killing four more warriors. She then stabbed another soldier in the chest. The enemies closed in on her as she took one woman's sword hand before cutting another through the face with her dagger. Tavanika ducked a slash for her head and promptly sliced though the man's knee sending him to the ground. Bullets went by her, barely missing her as she looked back.
"Musketeers in the trees… a trap!" she heard someone yell.

The musketeers fired their bullets on the Alliance fighters, especially taking aim at the Tinmaroth tricyclerettes, who were causing the most damage to the army of the Steamgod. The warriors of Petroken, Ethonen and Sarentakar all began to circle around the valley, looking for open grounds to fight more effectively, but the area was too narrow for other than close up battling, rendering most long-range weapons like cannons useless, since you'd hurt foes as well as friends with these. And in the middle of it all, this shining Gold Knight, who was sweeping across the battlefield like a blazing tornado, seemingly invincible, as she trampled out enemies as if they were nothing but milling ants.

This caught the attention of General Rania as he charged to face that unit, desperate to reach this seemingly invincible knight. Seeing Rania, the Zekarans were only further incensed as they bellowed in wrath. Rania grabbed one of the Zekarans' spear and pulled him forward and then punched him so hard in the head that he killed that man. Then Rania was followed by his soldiers when they charged forward smashing spears and sending soldiers flying. The Zekarans fought on with equal tenacity killing several soldiers around Rania; however the General himself was coated in protective magic and could not be touched. Another soldier got to close to Rania, who then promptly snapped her neck with a single strike. Rania unsheathing his sword continuing to cut into the warriors as streams of blood shot through the air, pushing to get near the Gold Knight.

At this, point despite the musketeers in the trees, the battle was about even as neither side gained any ground on the other. However, with Solhara's larger army, this was in fact a good thing as they could attrition their enemies out, but Rania preferred the decisive victory because he knew he wasn't facing the full might of Tinmaroth, only some advance units. So at three blows of a horn, the line of the soldiers of Pentakoran appeared out of the caves on both the left and right flanks of the Coalition army and swarmed the Zekarans who controlled the ends of the line. The Alliance forces fell back hard at the power of such a blow. Kaya led from the left and she charged into battle bearing a sword in each hand cutting down people all around her. Zerician was calmly slicing foes from on top of his horse leading from the right flank.

Ilda had her sword out to meet Kaya who smiled at the blonde tribeswoman. Without moving a brow Ilda  swung her sword at Kaya but the latter blocked it with her left sword and then smashed Ilda in the temple with her right elbow. Ilda tried to get the upper hand but a flick of Kaya's wrist disarmed her. Defeated Ilda  pulled back into the line. She couldn't match the other woman's prowess on the battlefield.

***

Edius reached over and flipped the body to its back.
"I know him… but that's not possible."
"Well… who is it?" Narakthoar enquired.
"That… that… is General Zerician." Edius was in shock. "Yet… that warrior is with Rania. I saw him board the ship!"

Narakthoar grew suddenly fearful.
"Uh… forget him, let's leave. Now!"
"You know what…" Edius looked around. "I think I'm with you."

The two trekkers turned around only to be face to face with eight otherworldly beings. These creatures seemed to shine with some odd darkened kind of light, like sunshine on rain clouds. The one that stepped up caught their direct interest. He bore a massive blade on his back, almost as large as a normal human, and it too shone with that dark light. This was obviously the leader of the group and he stood almost seven feet tall and stared down at Edius and Narakthoar. The cool voice was like ice upon the soul.
"I'm the of voice of the servants of The Midnight Lady. We eight are the servants, who do you serve?"
"Why, I serve you mighty master." Narakthoar bowed and said.
"Then follow," the tall bulk gave his large head a nod over to a huge Steam Vehicle which loomed like an enormous colossus in the middle of the flatlands. And without further notice he and his followers started walking in the direction of the large Steamer, the perplexed Narakthoar and Edius trailing behind.

***

"How's it going out there?" demanded Chonaira. The Executive Clerics were all gathered in the main temple, taking cover while the entire room rocked with the forces being let out outside. Both technical and magical powers were let loose and only heavily deployed magic shielding defended these inner rooms.
"As well as can be expected, we've taken moderate losses so far but it could be a lot worse," the clerk Moraine assessed. A map of the Acropolis was rolled out on the table and Moraine indicated the areas where damage had occurred, using her long rapier as a pointer.

"Move emergency response teams to the campanile and the pagoda and put out the fire there," ordered Rubaron, stroking his long, graying beard.
"What about the holy scriptures?" Moraine asked.
"They have already been brought to safety down in the basement behind the fireproof doors," Rubaron confirmed before the room rocked even heavier and parts of the ceiling came crashing down.

"Are we safe down here?" asked Kymel, concerned, removing his round spectacles and beginning to frantically polish them with a handkerchief. They were of course perfectly clean, Chonaira noted, but Kymel's behavior was a well known nervous tick.
"Safer than we would be upstairs," Rubaron commented ruefully.
"And I don't believe there's any reason to panic just yet," Chonaira decided. "The Knights have not turned towards attacking our facilities and though they are fighting our own forces, they are just as focused on fighting the unexpected invaders as we are. In a few hours, with the help of the Mother, this should all be over …and in our favor."

The next second a temple page with her breath on top of her lungs came crashing through the doors.
"Your holinesses," the young girl panted. "We have a visitor who came through the secret tunnel, and – he's... It's urgent, he says. A matter of life and death!"
"What!" Chonaira swirled around to face the young girl who was pale in her face with fear.
"I know you told to not be disturbed, but this man carried the seal of..."
"For the Mother's sake, lass, don't just stand there then, send him in!" the High Priestess demanded.

At her direct order, the page backed out again and then they heard running feet rattling across the stone floor followed by risen voices down the hallway. Another explosion rocketed the room and Kymel made a protective gesture with his hand before putting back his glasses on the nose. The next moment the footfalls returned and the page showed a man in his thirties with a scarred face into the large hall before closing the door behind him. The man walked up to the gathered clerics with determined steps and stopped right in front of Chonaira.

"What news do you have to report, Falfo?" the high priestess enquired.
"I'd rather show you." Falfo replied while removing his well worn and dirty leather jacket. "Because you wouldn't believe me otherwise. Give me a silver bowl for scrying!"

Hearing that, one of the clerics brought out a bowl and filled it with holy water before passing it forward towards Falfo. He grabbed the bowl with slightly shaking hands, the left one missing two fingers. All the clerics  turned to the bowl which soon was showing Solharan defensive forces in combat with an unknown vehicle a bit outside the city.
"What in the Mother's name is that?" demanded Kymel as magic blasts arced from the vehicle and destroyed the fighters and surface vehicles before it continued on unimpeded.
"I've never seen anything like it," Chonaira replied. "But it wouldn't surprise me if it belonged to those cursed Aratineans. If not even the Steamgod can help his own against that monstrosity, then we can only pray to the Mother that she'll be here for us."

"Let's match the vehicle with the records in our databanks," Rubaron suggested and waved his hand over the bowl. The image ruptured and was replaced with a parade of other steam vehicles that rolled past, magically stored from various people's memories.
"It's too big, for anything remotely..." the high priestess began but Rubaron insisted:
"We might find something similar in design, although smaller. Then we might know who built this leviathan."

And indeed, within a minute a similar, although quite a bit smaller steamer appeared in the bowl.
"Not a perfect match, but this proves that it is indeed the damn Aratineans who are playing this game," Moraine pointed out. "This is one of the two hundred Steamrollers used by the Aratinean Steam Road Express Company for transporting goods across the Arcadia. The SRE is one of the largest companies in the business, their head Valona is extremely rich and according to our informers she has the Aritanean senate eating out of her hands, after having financed the campaigns of several of its members. We also know that they have been financing constructions run in secrecy, constructions that we haven't been able to uncover. Not even with our access to the best industrial espionage, "

"So that's what they built!" Chonaira could hardly believe her eyes.
"Indeed," Moraine replied. "And there's more. Rumours have it that Valona is involved in a Midnight Queen cult, and has been said using dark magic to enhance her business."  
"The Dark Lady working from Aratinea of all places!" Kymel exclaimed and wiped his forehead. "These are indeed strange times we are living in now."
"I can't imagine the appearance of this thing right now is a coincidence," Zargou figured.
"I think it's time for the Special Event to be put into effect," said Nerokas. "The authorities of Solhara must be informed."

Everyone stared at him, completed shocked that he even mentioned that thought out loud.
"That is out of the question," said Chonaira dismissively.
"No, he may have a point," Rubaron conceded. "Solhara as we know it isn't going to survive this no matter what happens today. Initiating the Special Event is an attractive option and nobody would see it coming, not even those fools from the Demiurge faith."
"I'm not going to play any part of this," Chonaira said, disgusted. "That is a last resource and it must be sanctioned by the Mother herself. And I cannot believe.."
"I'm willing to risk it," said Nerokas smugly.

"I'm not," replied Zargou. "Not without The Mother's Finest coming along for the ride because we'll need them when the operation is over."
"Fine," Nerokas relented. "We'll contact your force on what to do and we'll recall those outside at the last second…provided we agree to go forward with Special Event." Moraine gave a terrified nod, not wanting to be facing the consequences of not coming along and Kymel just gave a light toss of his pudgy pink hand to indicate their commitment to the plan, gold rings flashing in the dim light.
"You're all fools." Rubaron said. "But I've always said that I'm not any less foolish than the rest of you so count me in!"

At this moment all eyes once more turned to Chonaira to see if her opinion would change.
"I'm not going along with this," the High Priestess repeated. "Mother is my witness that this is the wrong way out. If She had given us a sign it would've been another thing, but not now!"
"Isn't that huge monster of a Steamroller proof enough for you then?" Moraine asked. "Coming from the Dark Lady as rumour has it."
"It's not," came Chonaira's curt answer. "Nevertheless I'll be there when the operation is done and I'll do it my way."

"Then I'm assuming we have a second, all approved?" asked Nerokas.
"Aye," came the response from the other board members but one.
"All opposed?"
"Nay," said Chonaira.
"Then prepare for the Special Event," said Nerokas. The clerics slowly filed out leaving Chonaira behind.
"May the mother protect these misguided fools," she said out into the empty room. And on the table before her the sight bowl showed the gargantuan Steamroller heading for the heart of Solhara and its capital Tirenoan.  

***

Zorias charged out to meet Zerician, grasping his sword while Zerician charged at him, deflecting the blow from the Pentakoran general. But the pressure of the attack forced Zorias back and he took a scratch above the eyebrow. Still the Demiurge Alliance continued fighting as soldiers died across the field of battle. Bullets raining down upon them took many warriors to meet their end.

Tavanika had fell back several feet, tired after her magic attack, which had disabled the formerly so grand Steamgod army. These feet had been pricy and Tavanika's white outfit had turned red with the blood of the enemies. However she tirelessly continued to attack the adversaries and killing any soldier she could reach, but she feared that the battle might be lost as the Alliance army was falling back fast. Then Tavanika's eyes fell upon the Tinmarothian General Oxtoro, whose armor was drenched with blood. He may be a fool, but he was indeed a brave fool, she though, watching his polearm disemboweled an enemy soldier.

Several commanders across the field gave the retreat order as they pulled back to save themselves. However the Tinmarothians refused to leave. Tavanika jumped on a horse and charged though the battlefield slicing any who got in her way on her drive to get through to General Oxtoro. The Gold Knight was still some twenty yards from the general when she called out to him:
"Oxtoro we have to retreat now!"
"Tinmarothians never retreat!" Oxtoro looked up as he turned to her after killing another soldier.

Then the Tinmarothians shouted while they suddenly charged through the enemy front, pushing a good twenty feet inside their lines. Tavanika watched as the fighters of Solhara and Pentakoran rapidly surrounded the Tinmarothians on all sides. Meanwhile, a bloodied and wounded Ilda came running across the uneven ground, towards Tavanika, jumping over dead and wounded as she went.
"We have to retreat now!" she was calling out.
"What about the Tinmarothians?" Tavanika shouted.
"They're dead! Let's leave while we can!"

At that moment Tavanika retrieved command of the army.
"Alliance! In the name of the Demiurge! Retreat! We're leaving now, heading for the plains again!"

While she shouted out her orders she cut down another attacker. Then the Knight looked back at the Tinmarothians one last time before she took her leave. As Tavanika retreated, a soldier on horseback jumped on her and took her to the ground. They rolled on the ground and Tavanika met his face. She didn't know it but it was Zerician, the commander of the Pentakoran units.

"Where is Kelisone?" he shouted.
"What?" Tavanika struggled with the stranger man. He wouldn't let go his iron grip clasped around Tavanika.
"Kelisone has something that belongs to me! I want it back! Where is she? Tell me or die!" Tavanika tried to break his grip but the strength of this man was incredible, almost godlike. Tavanika was screaming in pain when Ilda knocked him off her. Tavanika and Ilda then both charged at Zerician, but he smashed them in the face sending them flying backwards. The next second, the man disappeared in a haze of green smoke.

"By the Demiurge, who was...?" Tavanika regained her footing.
"Beats me," Ilda returned, shaking her head. "But we won't learn that now, so let's commence our retreat."
Before Resmandra could move to pursue Valona she heard a low sobbing voice behind her.
"Zardinek! No! You can't die, not now!"

Spinning around, she saw to her horror Levone crouched over the body of a mortally wounded Zardinek, who had been without the protection of an amulet when the dark magic had struck. Splinters of magically tainted steel had hit him in several places and he was bleeding severely. Levone stared up at Resmandra, tears streaking her face, painting black rivulets of make up on pale cheeks.
"Resmandra . . .you can help him . . .can't you?"

The Mother Priestess stared down at her fallen friend, jaw clenched grimly. Rage burned in her, rage hotter than the fires of the Steamgod's smelteries. Valona had done this. And by all that she held dear, the treacherous bitch would pay. She would seek the dark one out, rend her with her Power, and break her on the sword of her empathy.
"Resmandra, please!"

Levone's frantic cry snapped her out of her trance. Rage was forgotten. Revenge could wait. Resmandra knelt by Zardinek's side. His face was ashen pale, his chest barely moved. She could feel the life slipping from him. Livid red marks slashed his chest and abdomen. Resmandra placed her hands on his face.
"Mother, help me!" she prayed. Then she called upon her healing Gift. It came with all the force of a raging spring flood, sweeping through her with the force of a typhoon.

But she didn't dare to release the total sum of that power on Zardinek; his weakened body would not stand for it. She must channel and control the raw power, temper it the way a smith tempers iron, until it became something she could use. It was like trying to hold onto a tornado with her bare hands, it bucked and twisted and fought, until Resmandra began to fear that not all her will would be enough. No! She wouldn't surrender! She wouldn't let death take Zardinek! That man deserved his life. His love. His future!

Her will clamped down, forcing the raw force to bend to her mastery. She sent the magic force into the weakened Zardinek in gentle thrusts, one to strengthen his weakening heart, another to remove the poison in his blood, still another to clear his laboring lungs. And then a final coating to stop the bleeding and close the wounds. Golden light flared powerfully around her as she focused all of her will, all of her power, all of her determination upon the still figure lying before her.

Live!

In the name of the mother – Live Live Live!

The dark magic could not stand up under the assault; she drove it from him with a wild snarl of victory. Spent, Resmandra released her hold on the power, slumping forward over Zardinek who opened his eyes, glassy and wild with confusion.
"Where what...?"
"Zardinek! You're all right!" Levone cried, hugging him so hard he feared his ribs would crack.
"What happened?" Then he noticed the fallen form in front of him. "Resmandra! What's the matter with you?"

"Resmandra healed you."
"That's right..." Slowly Zardinek nodded. "I could feel myself fading, but she brought me back. But who's going to heal her?" He struggled into a sitting position, cradling Resmandra in his arms. At his touch, Resmandra stirred. Her green eyes opened. She smiled at Zardinek. Then she went pale.
"Valona. Where is she?"
"Gone." Levone answered. "She fled, and Erkander went after her. He took Theka and Catara, the other bodyguard, with him. I hope he tears the murdering bitch to pieces!"

"But why us?" Zardinek asked as he turned his face to the door where quite a few of the guests were now lining up to leave. Levone returned his confused gaze, then she laid her arms around him and leant her head at his chest.
"Beats me," she replied silently. "However I've never been able to stand that bitch Valona. So what are you going to do about her?"

Resmandra didn't reply. She no longer cared about revenge. She only hoped Erkander survived.

***

Fires raged into the night and so much smoke choked the skies above that even if the dawn was breaking, no one would have been able to tell. The battle had also evolved in ways none of the original Knights could have imagined. Now vehicles were raced not only across the ground, but somewhere trying to break through the portico of the large temple, ramming it, under the barrage of fire from the Mother's Finest. And also due to the chaos, the battle had dissolved into a three way melee.

Pylendra's adversary was the mercenary Anthergar, who was ducking from the assaults of her guns, while his driver was swirling the wheel, trying to avoid being cornered between Pylendra and the plastered stone wall corning off the high plateau. A bit away Saturnine was battling Taranaxas. Both of them firing on each other with reckless abandon. Katalos himself though have avoided the incoming Demiurg foes, mounted his vehicle, told Nateira to drive and they were now going after the stranger in the large red Steamroller. The one Ansafar had warned them about. But Nateira had to slam on the brakes when Taranaxas' tricycle and the horse backed Saturnine raced across his path.

"Idiots!" said Katalos shaking his head before once more chasing after the Steamroller.
"Hey Knight, take a seat, I'm driving!" Taranaxas shouted at his pursuer as he pulled his smog check cord and thick black smoke belched out of his oversized tailpipe. And thanks to the darkness of the night, Saturnine rode right through it and instantly stalled out.
"Little lad, why don't you go back to knocking off post offices and leave the real combat to the big thugs," Saturnine quipped, trying to stall for time as she desperately began trying to rear in her horse. The musketeer circled around her and pulled out his gun, aimed it...

"Oh, I already am one of the big boys. But you, old lady are about to kiss your future goodbye!" said musketeer before noticing that his bullet only hit Saturnine's magically deployed shield.
"By the Mother's tits!" Taranaxas cursed!
"Big boys, huh! If I was your momma I'd wash your mouth with soap and water," Saturnine conceded and then she turned her horse around. "My turn!"

By that she drew her gun and almost from the hip she shot off a bullet. Taranaxas laughed scornfully when it whistled by his head, before realizing it was just a distraction. Saturnine's actual weapon had been a knife which buried itself in his armpit, forcing him to lose control over his tricycle, and with blood running down his right torso he crashed right into the stand of a statue. The impact threw him out of his seat and across the air until he smashed like a fly against the marble. Then his limp body slid down and remained unmoving on the grass tuft beneath the statue.

***

"Edius, the Plains are so much better than Solhara. Safe in the fact there is no one trying to invade us," said the tall, bulky man dressed in a blue cloak as he regarded the Steamvehicle convoy heading Northwest on the dusty road across the steppe. The sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky and not a single wind blew. Birds of prey could be seen circling down to the south.  
"Narakthoar… what do you mean safe?" Edius shot back. "In the middle of a civil war?"

Narakthoar didn't  reply, he just kept regarding the convoy trough his binoculars, chewing on a cocablade to keep his concentration up in spite of the heat and the hunger. Then suddenly his head shot eastward and then he handed the binoculars over to Edius.
"Have a look at... yes, right there. Do you see what I'm seeing?""
"Yeah, if you mean - a dead body."
"I do. And the uniform?"
"It's a... Steamgod followers I think they call themselves."
"Let's go check it out!"

***

Running down the cobble stones of the winding alleys of Aratinea's old town, Valona felt her breath burn in her lungs and her heart beat assault her ear drums. She cursed under her breath, she had lost against the foreign bitch, how could she have underestimated that Sarentakarite priestess so much? She should've known better after all those years, she should have checked out the younger woman's powers first and prepared accordingly. But she had let herself be blinded by stupid anger and desire to strike out hard, instead of acting cold and calculating, as her goddess had taught her.

Well, the battle was not yet lost, far from it. She still had a chance, a powerful weapon hidden away. Now, she just had to reach that one. Because when it was deployed, that little annoying priestess would soon be history. Then she would have an open road to deal with the woman's child. To really do what her goddess had ordered her to do! And she would become what she was meant to become!

***

"I appreciate the help whoever you are," said Tulavia to the stranger on horseback. "But I can handle myself!"
A magic shot smacked Dersia straight in the torso causing her to fall like a rock before barely straightening out and managed to get control over her tricycle again. Dersia became joined by Anthergar and then they both chased after Pylendra.

"Thanks for the assist, though," remarked Tulavia as the dark clad being took up a flanking position behind her.
"Yes, well, I never had a chance to meet you before and so I thought I'd help you just this once," was the conflicted response from the stranger.
"You know, gentleman, you don't have to do anything you don't feel right in doing." said Tulavia scornfully.
"I pledged an oath of loyalty to a certain person and I am honour bound to uphold it. Besides, he's my father and I cannot betray him." the stranger added. Tulavia had no clue what the dark clad was talking about, but decided to roll with the flow. She held in her horse.

"You wouldn't be betraying him, you'd be helping him," Tulavia took a wild chance. The stranger didn't reply; instead he just coasted away from her.
"Hey!" Tulavia called out once more.
"Yes?" came the saddened response of what she knew was coming next.
"You have a name?"
"I did. Once," said the stranger and then he kicked in the sides of his horse and galloped away. Then the horse circled around as the stranger pulled out a gun and shot out the woman on tricycle who was trying to get Tulavia from behind.

A bit away Taranaxas was assaulting Anaviran who kept holding his ground. He knew he had to reach inside of  the Holy Mother Temple and that he had to do it soon. Time was running out.

***

General Rania of Solhara knew what was going on so he made sure his fighters were ready. The first cannon shots killed almost 200 people within an instant and following that the Solharan ordered his musketeers to load and fire their rifles. Kaya was already in position to fulfill her assignment in this battle. Her actions would likely seal the fate of this battle for Rania. Zerician sat upon his horse awaiting his marching orders. Though some of his people had been in the raid, the enemy was generally not aware of the Pentakoran units on the battlefield, and this would play to Rania' advantage.

***

Valona ran with the desperation of a hunted cougar, slipping through the nearly empty of Aritanean side streets like a sea serpent slid through water. She could hear the pounding feet and the calls for halt from her pursuers behind her, but she ignored them and ran on. Someone was reaching out with a hand from behind, grabbing the back end of her jacket and she quickly wriggled out of it and put on another desperate burst of speed. The catacombs. If she could reach the catacombs she would be safe. Those darn bodyguards wouldn't dare following her there; it was a maze of tunnels and warrens, the breeding grounds of the venomous city rats. Only she knew the safe path through the twisting caverns, she had learned it decades ago. She had no fear of the rats. Her Dark Mistress would protect her.

She wouldn't dare to return home right now, but there was another safe place she could go to. A storage facility owned by her company. There she had loyal co-workers who would help her no matter what and she would be able to get a safe vehicle and leave this town, to return only when she had her secret asset at hand. Then she would exact her plan to the minute, no failure this time! She turned to run down the narrow alley to the harbor. Suddenly lamplight flared before her, and engine was revving, voices calling out. Damn them! They had cut off her escape route. Furious, she tried to double back, but she could hear the heavy pounding of her followers drawing nearer.

Panic thundered in her veins. She would die here, like a trapped animal, hunted down and killed. No! It was not supposed to end this way. She was supposed to win!
"Midnight Lady, why have you deserted me?" she called out between her teeth. But the shadows were silent about her. Her goddess had deserted her after her blatant failure.

"Fine, then! I don't need you!" Cursing softly, Valona climbed over a low wall and began to scale the cliff wall, climbing around the edge of a house. She could hear the fabric of her dress rip when it got caught on something with an edge. Damn! But that one had to go! Far below her, the sea crashed against the shore, thundering in her ears like steamroller engines. Ignoring the despair that settled about her like lead, she set her foot firmly in a crevice and pushed upward. The stone crumbled beneath her foot.

For one moment she hung in midair. Then her fingers found another precarious handhold. Her strength was almost gone. Then her feet found another crevice, and she managed to climb a few more feet.
"Valona!" a familiar voice.
"So, husband. You've found me at last. Proud of yourself?"

Erkander stood on the lip of a cliff, staring up at her. In his left hand a handlamp in his right a gun, though he made no move to use it. Valona remained crouched against the gray stone, her dress in shreds, her raven hair whipping about her head in wild tendrils. Her face, which he had once compared to a porcelain doll, was streaked with dirt and bleeding from the rough rock. Her wide dark eyes gleamed with despair and hate. And something more. Fear.
"Come down. You can't run any more. There's nowhere for you to go."
"Go screw yourself, Erkander!"
"You have a choice. I can shoot you down. Or you can come down willingly and stand trial."

"How magnanimous! The famed Aratinean justice! A trial where you will try to condemn me to death for black sorcery. My lawyers will hammer you into pulp!" She laughed wildly. "And to think, I cared for you once. What a fool I was, to ever think a weakling like you was a fit mate for me. I could have made you ruler over all of Arcadia, given you power such as no mortal man has had in centuries. You would have been like a god! And I would have been at your side as a goddess! But what did you do? You cast me aside for that whining, sniveling excuse for a priestess! When we could have ruled the world!"

"I never wanted to rule the world. Only to serve Aratinea. You never did understand that, Valona."
"Weakling!" she sneered. "Come up and kill me, then! Or are you afraid to soil your pretty hands with the death of a woman? I killed your precious Zardinek, after all!"
"No. Resmandra will save him." Erkander's eyes blazed.
"So you hope!"
"No. I would've known if Zardinek was dead. Not that I grasp why you went after him anyhow. What did he ever do to you? Nevertheless you failed, Valona. Your power is gone. Your goddess has deserted you. You've nothing left save pride. Come down! You have no other choice."

"You are wrong, Erkander. There is another choice." She removed one hand from the rock, reaching inside of her jacket, grasping the gun in its holster. Turning around she aimed a shot at the senator. But she hadn't counted on the recoil, and it made her lose her grip of the rock. For one moment she hung suspended in midair, a wail flowing from her lips. Then her body flew through the air to land with a sickening crunch on the jagged rocks below.

Erkander thought was grasping his left torso where the bullet had hit only centimetres from his heart, kneeling on the rock, groaning with pain.
Resmandra's teeth ached from clenching them, for the sense of imminent danger was growing as the party rolled on. This all felt so unfair! All those people were having so much fun, they were dancing and singing, amusing themselves. Drinking and singing and carousing. Rejoicing in the manifestation of true love between Zardinek and Levone as well as mingling about with good friends. And upon none of these happy faces did she trace a single tick of fear. But she knew that they would soon all learn it as the madness broke loose. And there was little she could do to prevent it.

It didn't take long before all hell and then some broke out. As Resmandra watched from her place to the side, Lady Valona moved forward, towards the bridal couple on the dais. Her green gown was shimmering, her hands clutching a small package wrapped in glossy, pink paper and a bow in the same colour. She slid up to the newlyweds with all the sinuous grace of a cobra that spies her prey awaiting her on a rock. Resmandra felt her stomach turn over as she saw the bizarre, black haze surrounding the businesswoman's tall form. That haze, which Resmandra had no doubt was the only one in here able to see, was the final proof that Valona was an initiate of the Dark Mysteries. And the thing she held in her hands fairly blazed with dark magic to one with the Gift. The Mother's priestess began to chant softly under her breath, summoning her power.

As Valona reached the dais, she flashed a triumphant smile at the couple and spoke in a voice that was all sweet poison.
"I congratulate you on your marriage, Zardinek and Levone. May you and yours know peace." Then she handed her gift over to the groom, who unwrapped it. It was a beautiful garden bush trimmer of the kind that could be hung from a hook. Its handle was made from elaborately brought brass and on top of it was a huge stone of smoky quartz crystal. It caught the lamplight and seemed to draw it in, winking brilliantly. Resmandra cursed under her breath as she felt the spell of the cutter flare, seeking to make all that saw it desiring it. The darkness oozed like slime from every pore of the metal. She saw Levone start, as if waking from a dream and look at the cutter with revulsion. Only then did Resmandra recall the necklace she had given the bride, the necklace spelled to protect the wearer from dark magic. Horrified, she remembered she had intended to give Zardinek one as well, but somehow she had forgotten.

Too late. Resmandra saw Zardinek's eyes widen, falling deeply under the spell. The next moment he reached for the rose cutter with eager hands, lost in an unnatural desire for a mere dead thing. As a last resort Resmandra stepped out in front of him.
"Don't touch it, Zardinek!" she commanded in a voice sharp enough to crack glass. Zardinek blinked as if awaking from a nightmare.
"What?" the newlywed groom looked in surprise at the priestess.
"What do you mean by this, Sarentakarite? How dare you insult me like this?" Valona snarled, her tone all commanding, as if she was addressing a less adequate employee.

"Don't play games with me, Valona. I know you for whom and what you are." Resmandra's voice rang out like a clarion call. "That rose cutter is no innocent gift, but a relic of dark magic, an instrument of death dedicated to The Dark Goddess herself!"
"Has the wine gone over your head, priestess?" Valona laughed. But Resmandra did not back down for scornful words.
"By the Mother's Eyes, I command thee, reveal thy true nature!" she chanted and the other woman took a slight step back in confusion, as Zardinek dropped the gift on the floor in confusion. Then Zardinek turned to look at Levone with lifted brows, but she appeared as surprised has he was.

Among them murmuring voices of anger, surprise and confusion were heard. As well as some who seemed delighted in watching the drama unfold. Well, they would soon get even more to gossip about in the days to come, Resmandra thought with a part of her mind.

Now there was a flash of green light and a sound like a thunderclap. Instantly the object on the floor turned black and radiated such an aura of horror that people screamed and staggered backward, terrified. Before Valona could react, Resmandra spoke another word of Power, snapping her fingers with both her hands. The cutter blade flared and shattered, eaten from within by green fire. Splinters flew in all direction and the nearest light bulbs shattered, as did glasses which held beverages, spilling its content over tables, people and the floor. Screams and curses were heard as people retreated, some even bolting for the doors, and the music on the podium stopped abruptly. An arc of electricity shot out from the cutter and split, fizzed and danced in the air before it evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared.

For a short time chaos reigned. Then it all quieted down and save for confused murmur and people trying to clean off their garment, it was as if the room had returned to some kind of normal. Footsteps across broken glass were heard and helping hands were reaching out to those who had fallen while eager catering personnel started with brooms and mops to clear away the worst of the mess. After all, these people were used to parties flipping now and then.  

"Did you think you could defeat me so easily, Resmandra?" Valona growled in fury. "You forget, stranger, tonight is the night of the dark moon, and those who draw power from darkness are stronger than those of the light!" Her hand swept up, purple fire crackling from it. But before she could release it, Resmandra had formed a curving shield about herself. The fire struck the barrier, hissing and sparking, but unable to penetrate it.
"And now, at last, you have revealed yourself for what you are, Valona! A disciple of The Dark Goddess, the Anti-Mother, the Midnight Lady, Mistress of Poison and Assassins. You cannot hide any longer, now all of us know the truth."

Valona gasped, only then realizing that she had broken the most basic of The Dark Goddess's laws and revealed her powers to the uninitiated. She felt the disapproval of her goddess and cringed beneath it.
"Midnight Lady, forgive me!" she whispered under her breath, but the priestess had heard her.
"She will not, and you know it!" Resmandra snarled, her tone implacable as steel. Now Erkander rose from his place, his face grim and dark. There was no softness in him now, only the iron determination to bring a traitor to justice.
"Valona of the House of Erkander, you have betrayed your House and your sworn matrimonial oath to me. I hereby divorce you, as being my right under the law of Aratinea, where no one is forced to live under the same roof as a practitioner of the Dark Arts. I name you outcast and oath breaker, willing servant of darkness, let none give you shelter or aid, lest the wrath of the Mother fall upon you! Thus you are cursed, for now until your death!"

Valona turned to her husband, glaring at him in rage.
"You understand nothing about this, Erkander! So stop giving me the lip! I gave you everything, including enough money to support a second run for the senate. It was a dowry you couldn't even comprehence! And you reward me thus!" Suddenly the gleaming steel of a gun became visible in hand. In that instance Theka began to edge forward, shoving ruthlessly through the crowd. Valona glanced about her wildly, an edge of panic in her eyes. Then she whirled, her eyes glittering with unholy glee.
"Do you think I will submit so tamely to your justice, fool? Then you know nothing of a dark initiate!"

A shot rang out.

"Erkander, get down!" Resmandra shrieked, flinging herself atop him. The bullet whined by somewhere above them and impacted in something which might have been wood. Resmandra felt her shield hold, but just barely. She sprang to her feet, prepared to counter the assault of Valona. The other woman crouched before her, but Resmandra sensed that her dark power was spent. She had lost the favor of her goddess, and with it her magic.
"Surrender, Valona." Erkander ordered. "It's over."
"Not until I'm dead, you bastard!" She turned to run, bolted across the abandoned dance floor and threw herself out through the double doors to the party hall.

***

Chonaira was still formulating a response to that when an initiate knocked on the door.
"Yes?"
"They're here."

Chonaira and Katalos instantly locked eyes and then Katalos stood and ran from the room as Chonaira headed for her magically reinforced window, looking out at the temple courtyard. From the edge of the Acropolis hill, five lights appeared and then slowly revealed themselves as belonging to two large Steamrollers and one tricycle, which were all slowly rolling up to the entrance to the temple. And from inside the temple came an assembly of smaller vehicles belonging to the local squad of The Mother's Finest, and they each took up a defensive position between the facility and the new arrivals.

The two sides faced each other in silence as lightning began to flash and thunder rumbled softly up in the sky. Soon the roar of engines brought up the counterpoint to the storm and the flash of headlights was seen.
"It's the Stormgod speaking his disapproval," Chonaira hissed as she gripped the gun in her holster, face pale and grim with determination. "Tonight a lot of things down here will be decided, and the gods will finally involve themselves. For good or for bad."

Katalos now showed himself at the terrace outside the offices, his dark red cloak flowing behind him like wings of a bird of prey and his steel helmet glowing in the stark moon light.
"I'm warning you, you get one last chance to walk away," he called out to the visitors, voice magically enhanced. "The mother takes care of hers, and the one who crosses her sanctuaries with evil intent will see her punishment for that."

"The Mother be damned, I've come to claim what's mine!" an equally enhanced voice was heard reverberating across the ground and then the new arrivals engaged the defending fighters of The Mother's Finest. Chonaira backed off and went inside her office again, beginning her preparation of what was needed to be done. Thus she didn't see the arrival of yet another group of fighter who swiftly engaged in the battle...

***

It was one hour before dawn and a moonlit night when the Demiurge Alliance's army stood ready to march. Kelisone had been discussing their approach with her fellow Gold Knight and Nakrian had told her to stay out of the initial fight for the time being but instead hanging back and watch the army from a distance. She knew the maps, she knew that there was only one possible way for the army to take, and she had scouted ahead to check it out, keeping to the mountainside to avoid ambushes as well as the regular scouts of the Tinmarothian General Oxtoro. The man, she now felt, posed an almost equal danger to the Alliance as the enemy themselves, with the discord he had sawn after his arrival the day before.

Her mind then turned to Nakrian, Tavanika and her other friends who would be involved in the battle. But especially Nakrian, there was something with the steel hard yet gentle knight that made her all fuzzy in her head, and she feared that she had started to fall for the man. Because now was not the time for love, now was the time for war and the two seldom mixed well, but tended to get in each other's way. She forced those thoughts out of her mind and from above she shot down three Steamgod soldiers who were lying in ambush down at the road. They would never get the chance to waylay any of Oxtoro's fights – or anyone else. She hated the thought of helping the haughty General, but they were on the same side in spite of everything, although she had expected better from a Tinmarothian.

It took her one more hour of climbing and trekking across the hard terrain, and then she reached the main force of Rania. They were hidden in a high valley, crowded together, and she knew they would be hard to defeat. Yet another hour later Oxtoro and his Tinmarothians stood center of the line as he led the way. The rocket guns lobbed several shots into the valley bringing them crashing upon the enemy army as an opening salvo to launch the battle.

And on a crest, hidden from all Ansafar was regarding the clash, hoping his plot would continue to work out as well as it already had. He had already managed to saw strife in the Demiurge army, and now he was going to carry the conflict to its next step.  
"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.
"Leave!"

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.
"What's wrong?"
"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.
"Kelisone?"
"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!

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