The Silver Tower Chronicles Adventures in other worlds, other times, and other realities

30Oct/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0070

Keeping away from civilization in Kurrot was an easy task. That was not the same as keeping away from people. Small homesteads could be seen in the distance more than once. Great herds of animals moved through the vast plains, directed by the Kurrot who ran along with them. For what was often thought of as vast empty plains, the land of Kurrot was surprisingly well populated with life and activity. The Kurrot were generally a solitary people, so the Irregulars were left alone for nearly two weeks.

Devis Lane led the five inhuman mercenaries southwest towards Agon as a huge line of herd animals was passing on their eastern flank. However, the herd had taken a sharp right turn ahead, crossing in the path of Enzi's Irregulars. Devis would either have to push through the line of herd animals or make his westward tack much heavier than expected. The Rakshasa had little taste for delays. He was half tempted to just cut through the herd with violence.

As the approached the line of animals one of the Kurrot herders slowed and turned to face the group suspiciously, “Who... Or what are you?”

“Enzi's Irregulars,” Devis answered in Kurro, “Headed back to Feergrus. Your herd seems to now be in our way.”

“Not much I can do about that,” the tall, thin Kurrot replied, “Just take a listen on the breeze.”

Listening to the calm quiet of the fields might have been soothing to some, especially with the rhythmic tromping of hooves upon the ground. As the breeze picked up, Devis heard another sound. It sounded suspiciously like wind chimes. The metallic sound was out of place in a vast open plain of tall grasses. The Rakshasa noticed a sense of fear of the noise from the herd. A quick brush of the surface thoughts told him everything else he needed to know.

“You hear that jingling?” the Kurrot asked, “That is razor grass. You try walking through that, you gonna have your skin carved up real good. Stuff is sharper than most blades and tough as iron. Most annoying stuff around, you just can't seem to get rid of it.”

The disguised Rakshasa nodded, able to see the truth in the man's mind, “Then we must go around. It will delay us, but far less of a delay than having our skin carved off as you so delicately put it.”

Devis had little fear of razor grass and assumed most of the Irregulars would be resistant as well, but it paid to appear more human and vulnerable. From reading the Kurrot man's surface thoughts, Devis knew that the only reason the herders had not attacked was that they had seen odder things in the plains. As long as it did not attack the herd, they were willing to let almost anything pass by without a fight. They had better things to do than just pick a fight with everything that moved.

The herders still regarded the inhuman mercenaries and their foreign leader with great suspicion. Devis could not blame them. His own motives were decidedly against the success of Kurrot unless it joined Feergrus. His patriotism was without bounds. Devis would see that Feergrus succeeded, no matter what it took. For the moment, that mean turning westward and walking beside a great herd of animals. Eventually the Kurrot and the herds outran Enzi's Irregulars.

Devis saw where they turned southwards and followed the path that had been forged. The disguised Rakshasa led the way towards Agon. He continued to head southwest, though he turned their direction mouth southwards than he had before. They had moved eastwards for nearly the whole day to avoid the massive patch of razor grass. The group traveled for eight more days before reaching the border of Agon. The border between Kurrot and Agon was not patrolled. There was no fence or anything to stop border crossings.

At this point in the border, what separated Agon from Kurrot was civilization. Towns dotted the border. Heavily traveled roads existed between the towns. Devis hoped to cross through Agon with as little contact with the natives as possible. It would be impossible to avoid them. They would need their aid to cross the rivers, but Devis was skilled at negotiation. He expected to be able to smooth over nearly any problem, even with five monsters following him.

Using any of his magic would be the biggest problem. He would have to rely on his cunning and physical strengths to survive this trip. In these regards, the Rakshasa was still far superior to any human he knew. The group crossed the border of Agon between the cities of Parevius and Seligkint. Devis planned to take the group due south through the farmlands of Agon until they reached the city of Eurarmis. They could take a ferry across the Capital River there.

The trick would be the four day walk through the farmlands. Hopefully they would not have to deal with any of the farmers, but Devis did not hold out much hope for that. His only hope was that they could keep them calm long enough to escape Agon and enter Feergrus. Failing that, delaying a chase by soldiers would be good enough. Devis did not want to start a fight in Agon. He would rather spend his time on more important things. Plus he was not sure how well he could hide his identity in a fight.

In regular things he could fool people into believing he was Enzi Cala. Even the Irregulars had not yet begun to suspect the Rakshasa. However, Devis had his own fighting style. He had fought Enzi and might be able to emulate it, but the Rakshasa's instincts would certainly betray him. His skill in battle far exceeded Enzi's meager talents. He had to rely on diplomacy. Luckily, Devis was also remarkably skilled at talking his way out of trouble. Being able to read minds helped with that skill quite a bit.

The first day went well. They crossed the road without seeing anyone traveling between cities. Growing season had begun long enough ago that the fields provided visual cover. Harvest was still many months away thankfully. It gave Enzi's Irregulars a way to evade detection. Not that it completely worked, however, as the swaying of tall stalks gave away movement when there was no wind. Such movement brought suspicion. That was why during the second day a voice yelled out in Agonori.

“Who goes there?”

It was a standard hail to determine friend or foe. Animals or criminals might flee. Only a friend or the devious would reply. Devis was nothing if not devious, but he also currently had no reason to be anything but a friend. The Rakshasa could read the fear on the surface thoughts of the farmer. Like nearly all Agonish men, the farmer had been through militia training in his youth. His skill with weapons would be higher than just any person, but Devis could tell this was a man who had never been in an actual fight.

Devis spoke in Agonori, “Greetings. We are merely passing through on our way to Feergrus, my homeland.”

Still disguised as the Feergrus man Enzi Cala, the Rakshasa stepped to where the Agonish farmer could see him, “Ah, yes. Would not the road be easier?”

“Time is of the essence,” Devis said, attempting to allay the farmer's suspicions, “We decided to take a rather direct route to reach Eurarmis.”

“It would be a lot easier to cross the rivers at the capital. They meet near there.”

“We had hoped not to be seen too much. My companions draw a lot of attention. With limited time, I thought it best to avoid civilization as much as possible. If you see my allies, you might understand.”

Devis swept aside some of the stalks so that the farmer could catch a glimpse of the inhuman mercenaries.”

The farmer's eyes widened like giant saucers, “What kind of unholy monsters are those things?”

“In the battles ahead there are many dangerous monsters we will have to face. There are few things in this world more effective to fight a monster than another monster. You understand why we might want to keep things quiet, yes?”

“I... I can see. Just hurry up and get away from here. I don't want to see anything like that ever again.”

The farmer shuffled off quickly. Devis could feel the man's fear. Even without his ability to read a person's surface thoughts, the fear was palpable. With his ability, he could see that the man would be too frightened to leave his home for some time, hoping that the mercenaries would be long gone before he would exit again. It would give Enzi's Irregulars plenty of time to escape the area before the farmer might think to inform anyone of what he had seen.

The group pushed hard for the river. The hard part would be getting passage across the mighty capital river. One could not just ford it. Devis hoped to be able to find a quiet way across, but anything could happen once they reached the city. The five inhuman mercenaries could remain outside the town while Devis found a method to get across. Crossing the Ago River would be much easier. All he had to do was reach the Agonish town of Mocelare.

An agent of Feergrus lived there and would make sure the rest of the trip went well. The group just had to make it across the Capital River and another two day's worth of travel across farmlands. Then they would be home free. The group had no more delays in their trip to Eurarmis. Still disguised as the Feergrus man known as Enzi Cala, Devis spoke to the Irregulars. He told them to make their way around the town to the river as quietly as possible and to remain unseen.

With that, the Rakshasa left them. Eurysa led the way and the group hid near the road that led into the small city. Ritter, as the one with the most human appearance, at least from a distance, peered down the road in both directions. The goal was to wait until the road was clear. At that point the group would rush across and make their way to the riverbank. However, it seemed like there was a constant stream of traffic flowing into and out of the town.

Finally things settled down and the five monstrous warriors made their way across the road. They came to the riverbank and watched as the mighty river flowed westwards towards the sea. The river was large, though not as large as the Ago River that it eventually flowed into. It was the Ago River that reached the ocean, carrying the water of at least a half dozen tributaries. The capital River carried water from three tributaries itself, the Florisica River, the Videnthal River, and the Kelmbach River.

Those rivers all met at the Agonish city of Wevner, often known as the City of Bridges. That city was far to the east however, and of no use to the travelers and their current predicament. A nice bridge would have been quite helpful where they were. The river was wide enough that it was difficult to see where the opposite bank was. Small waves showed the strong current. Aldebaran looked at the water and grunted while Kava was already busy dipping her one remaining hand into the cool water to refresh herself.

“Worried about getting sea sick?” the vodyanoi croaked at the minotaur.

Aldebaran snorted, “More worried how they are going to fit your ego on a boat.”

“I'll just swim. I can breathe underwater after all. This little boat thing is for all of you. Once again, proving my superiority. Breathing only air is for wimps.”

“You should try not breathing at all.”

“Then I could not add my insightful commentary. Whatever would you do then?”

“Probably be happy.”

“Not while I'm around. You are more amusing when you are grumpy anyway.”

23Oct/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0069

The sound continued to move as Devis' cunning mind pondered a dozen different solutions to the problem. It would help him if he knew what the actual problem was. A mobile Orn Baer Agar was the worst possibility. Prey that mimicked it would be the easiest, but Devis doubted mere prey would venture so close to the Irregulars unless it had to. Devis was rather surprised when he finally saw the foe. He grinned, for while unlikely, it was the kind of foe Devis dealt with most easily.

A man walked out from behind a tree, spinning a weird piece of wood. As he did so, it unleashed the siren's song. It was a neat trick. Timing it with the breeze would have been the hardest part, but it did not have to be exact. The way sound traveled was funny sometimes. The person that stepped out was obviously a Kurrot, though his appearance was bedraggled. This was a man who lived in the swamps, likely a hermit of some sort. To survive, he had learned all the tricks of the marsh.

Devis spoke in perfect Kurro, “Greetings stranger. It appears you have frightened off the goblinoids.”

“Lots of things move around here now,” the Kurrot replied, “Your war has made this a dangerous place.”

“Our war?” Devis asked.

“A Feergrus and some creatures out of myth and legend. You are Enzi's Irregulars.”

“How do you know of us?”

“I may avoid the so called civilized folk, but I keep up on the news when I can. I am a little surprised to see you here, however. Shouldn't you be over making war on the northern front?”

“Not anymore. We are making our way to Feergrus. Trying to save a few innocent lives.”

The swamp man snorted, “There are no innocent lives.”

“I can see why you would remove yourself to live here then.”

“Don't get me wrong, some people are decent enough, but the vast majority are enough to drive a man insane. I mean, what else would you call someone willing to come live in a swamp? Still, anything is better than those damn goblinoids. So I help out travelers from time to time and see what news they can give me of the outside world.”

“I can not imagine a lot of travelers come this way.”

“There are always people stupid enough to foolishly come here. Rarely they are more competent like you. People driven by need. Most are just hoping to make a name for themselves in the swamp. If the goblinoids don't get them, one of the trees might. Those blood sucking fiends are always waiting to charm someone close to them.”

Devis nodded, “We are familiar with the Orn Baer Agar in Feergrus. They haunt the Marsh of Vashim as well.”

“That sounds like an awful fancy name for killer trees,” the Kurrot grumbled.

“It is a pretty old name,” Devis stated, “As for new of the outside world, there is little new to tell you. The war continues. It will keep continuing for quite some time yet. I suspect the goblinoids will break eventually. The time is not yet ripe for their defeat. It will come, but the number of people who shall fall is left yet uncounted.”

“I'll be glad when it is over. Goblinoid critters come in droves now. Ruins the peace and quiet. Well, I will let you get on your way then. I have a few goblinoids to scare. If you come back through, be sure to stop by and tell me the news.”

“Yes, if we ever come this way again, perhaps we will chat again. Your aid is most appreciated.”

The hermit danced off to scare off the goblinoids while the disguised Devis looked to the mercenaries, “Well, he should buy us some relatively quiet nights until we get out of this place. Perhaps we will make it out of the swamp without incident after all.”

***

The hermit made his way through the Siren Swamp. He had his whistling rod at the ready. He had worked a long time on the carving of the instrument. Matching the sounds of the sirens of the swamp had been difficult. He quite enjoyed using it to scare the goblinoids. It was a necessary tool for his survival in the marsh. As he was using it to drive the goblinoids away from Enzi's Irregulars, he was quite shocked to see a Feergrus man appear in front of him.

“Enzi! What are you doing out here?” the hermit asked.

The disguised Rakshasa leapt forward and grabbed the hermit as he unleashed a spell. The hermit fell coughing. Blood poured from a hole in his side. He looked up in confusion as Devis Lane. The face of Enzi Cala smiled down at the hermit.

“Your toy will come in quite useful someday. I am taking it for study. There is an added bonus that you will not be able to help any other travelers through the swamp. Any other casualties of these foreigners will help me in the long run. Survivors of goblinoid ambushes will have killed off some of the goblinoids. No matter who dies, I win. These are the kind of situations I love most when I can create them. A situation where I can not lose.”

The hermit gurgled as he twitched on the ground, “Don't worry. Your hard work will make Feergrus a stronger country. In the end, that is all that is important. For love of my gods and country, you had to die. I am sorry, but your usefulness had ended.”

Devis Lane took the instrument that could mimic an Orn Baer Agar from the grasp of the corpse and hid it in his pack. He returned to camp silently and swiftly. The watch never even noticed he was gone. The mercenaries of Enzi's Irregulars were highly skilled, but they were little match for Devis Lane. The Rakshasa had thousands of years of experience in these things. Disguised as the once great Feergrus general named Enzi Cala, the Rakshasa closed his eyes and rested, waiting for morning.

***

The rest of the night passed without any further distractions. The next two days of travel put them past the area most likely to be heavily infested with goblinoids. They spent a quiet night in the middle of the Siren Swamp. The next day brought some hope to the group. By the end of the day, the ground had grown much firmer. Finally after another few days, the woods began to rapidly thin until Enzi's Irregulars stepped out onto the Blood Plains. To the southeast they could see the idyllic Lake Hargis.

To the south, they could see the farmlands of the Kurrot and the reddish grass that helped give the Blood Plains their name. The myth said that when a great combat occurred on this part of the Plains of Kur, it was so terrible that it stained the grass and the ground. The ground was saturated with red clay. While the myths were not entirely true, a great battle had occurred on the Blood Plains during the Second Goblinoid War. The humans had little information on this as they had been little more than small wandering tribes that avoided the area at that time in history.

Legends and myths had a way of remaining, even if the truth was long gone. Lake Hargis had been named after a human warlord. Legend told of him and his two daughters. One ended up as a mate to the equally famous warlord named Kur. The daughters gave their name to rivers, Liandris and Marnea. The Kurrot city-state that called itself Two Daughters was a nod to these legends. Devis could have certainly shed some light on the truth of the humans of that time, but saw little reason to tell people of their history of brutality.

It was easier to give them hope. To allow them belief in an innate nobility, even in a savage. In Devis Lane's eyes, the humans were easy to manipulate. It made them the perfect tool for the empire that the Rakshasa planned to create. There would be no more wars. Even then, Devis would still be needed however. Those who were not content would need to be ferreted out. Devis was the perfect spy and assassin. He would help the empire to be formed, then he would help it to last forever. A perfect utopia with the Rakshasa as leaders and the humans as their servants. It would take time, but the Rakshasa did not age. They had all the time in the world.

The group continued southwards. On the shore of the lake they could see one of the powerful city-states of Kurrot. This one had the unimaginative name of Lake Town. It was the first defense against goblinoid strikes from the Siren Swamp. It had nearly as many soldiers as it did fisherman. The freshwater fish of the lake were well loved across the island as something different from the ocean fish hauled in by the cities on the shore. As the Kurrot economy was mainly built on their export of salt, salted meats had become a major export as well.

Keeping fish fresh enough to be edible over long distances was difficult. Using salt to cure meat often meant it could last for weeks or months. The distance meant that cured freshwater fish was a delicacy in most lands. It was possible to catch them in the river east of Ravalei, but it was rare. That brought the fish too close to the briny ocean waters and the dangerous predators that lurked within. The fish found in the Ago River and its tributaries were freshwater fish as well, although of a very different variety.

Fish were not the only meat export. While Kurrot had significant farms for vegetables on the Blood Plains, its largest farming community were the shepherds of the plains. It was not just sheep, however. Oxen and goats were commonly herded in the Plains of Kur. While the kingdom of Agon was a dominant force in the farming of plants, Kurrot ruled the farming of most animals. Agon spent its skills in animal husbandry on horses. The land that might be used by farm animals was instead used to raise their mighty steeds.

It had allowed the two countries to come to an equitable trade balance. Agon constantly worked to find better deals for itself, dealing with each of the separate city-states of Kurrot. Each city-state was independent, allowing for some interesting trade negotiations. While the city-states of Kurrot were supposed to be allied, there was often competition between them. This was something that could easily be used against them, as long as you were careful. It was never advisable to piss off a Kurrot.

With that though in his head, Devis Lane led Enzi's Irregulars southwards. His plan was to avoid the cities and civilization. It seemed the most prudent thing to do. They would press forward, trying to reach Feergrus as quickly as possible. The wide open plains of Kurrot seemed a good place to make up some lost time. Civilization was sparse and most Kurrot would want nothing to do with travelers. The hermit in the swamp had not been much of an exception to the people of Kurrot.

It would be a solid three week walk to the Agonish border if the group headed straight south. Devis wanted to cut westward some. He wanted to minimize the time spent in Agon. The kingdom was widest in the east and thinnest in the west. Devis hoped to cross the border, then the Capital River, followed by the Ago River. While he could travel down the Capital River to reach the Ago River, that would take the group past the capital of the kingdom.

Devis did not want the inhuman mercenaries anywhere near the city of Agonor. It was too well policed. The criminal organizations there were quite powerful as well. Enzi's Irregulars had few fans in the southern countries anymore. A bounty rested on their heads for events long ago. Devis was sure the group had not been responsible, but that mattered little to him other than how it affected his plan. When the Irregulars had taken care of his problem with the lizardfolk, he could send them off to die. They would no longer be of any use to him.

16Oct/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0068

As the Feergrus man stepped across the ground of the base Kava croaked, “That limp is getting worse old man.”

The disguised Devis Lane scanned the surface thoughts of the vodyanoi to aid his reply, “Not so old that I can not still thump you in a fight.”

“Ha!” Kava cackled, “You still have fire left I see.”

“It will be needed. It is time for us to leave this place.”

“I thought that wasn't for another month?”

“Things have changed, we have another threat to deal with. I think you will like this one. Let's get the others.”

Kava rushed ahead as Devis changed the magnitude of his fake limp slightly. Soon all five inhuman mercenaries stood before the Rakshasa. They had been Enzi's Irregulars. Now they were a perfect weapon. Devis just need to get them south to start a war. None seemed to suspect him yet. The true test was yet to come. He looked over the five monsters and listened to their surface thoughts. He was as prepared as he could be for the act of a lifetime.

“We have a situation. Thousands of innocent lives are on the line. We can not wait here. We can not take safe routes. Time is no longer on our side. The lizardfolk are on the move in unimaginable numbers. We need to blunt their assault. I believe I know a way, but we have a long way to go. We must leave immediately.”

“A chance to chop up some slimy troglodytes?” Kava croaked, “This is too good to be true.”

“We are prepared,” Eurysa hissed, “It would be easier if we still had transportation.”

“We will make do,” the fake Enzi stated, “Perhaps the fates will aid us. This will be a dangerous trip. We have to cut through the Siren Swamp, Kurrot, and Agon. None of these places will be prepared for us. They will not have high regard for such monsters as we. We will do what we must. For the good of the people of the world. Come now, let us begin our journey.”

The group moved towards the gate and headed out. Upon hearing the news of their departure and what little had been overheard, a surprised General Cassius Tessium looked across the base camp. The northern front was now his alone to lead. The Nuvroci man took a deep breath. This was a true test for him. He wondered if he would pass. Devis Lane, on the other hand, was pleased with the reactions he had seen to his act thus far. The surface thoughts of the Irregulars showed no suspicion.

It was merely a start, but at least the first step was on solid ground. That would quickly become less likely to happen in the physical world. Traveling into the Siren Swamp was a moist affair. Finding solid footing was difficult. Slogging through the marsh took time and effort, but it was the fastest way. Technically the marsh of the Goblinoid Areas and the marsh known as the Siren Swamp were separate with about a four day walk between them.

In deed that area had far more solid ground. The Juranem River had solid definition as it flowed northwards out of Lake Hargis and towards the north coast. The river marked the edge of the Siren Swamp. The Tranumea River also flowed out of Lake Hargis and met up with the Juranem River. It was difficult to find much definition in that river while within the swamp. The Singer River marked another border of the Siren Swamp. Like the siren it was named after, the Tranumea River was a great danger within the marsh.

It was a deeper area within the march and had a powerful current. It could easily sweep one away never to be seen again. Yet it hid within the swamp nearly invisible to the naked eye unless you knew what to look for. It was only one of the dangers down the path Devis Lane led the Irregulars. It took nearly four days to reach the Juranem River from the military encampment. They ran into one of the Nuvroci Rangers who was out on patrol but otherwise that part of the trip went remarkably smoothly.

Crossing the Juranem River was the first challenge. It was not an easy river to ford. The group locked arms and moved into the water carefully. They moved at an angle, headed downstream as they moved across. The current caused a few minor problems, but the team eventually did make it to the other side safely. That meant the danger had only begun. It was only about two days of travel to reach the Tranumea River's current hidden within the Siren Swamp.

The other danger were the denizens of the marsh. It was very likely that goblinoids would be found in the Siren Swamp. They used crude boats to ferry their warriors past the rivers, so it was unlikely that any such foes would be found until the Irregulars crossed the Tranumea River. The ground tried to grasp at the feet of the Irregulars that had such appendages. The marshy ground made terrible sounds as the group tried to find drier ground. Eurysa had it easier in many ways. Her lower body as a snake gave her enough surface area to slide across the marshy ground without too much trouble.

The next day the group found a watery area. It was certain to be the Tranumea River. It was impossible to tell where the deadly currents might be. Devis used a stack to try to feel out where the deeper areas might be. The javelins, however, were a surprise. On what had to be the far side of the river, several goblinoids leapt up from the vegetation to make an ambush. Their javelins did not hit any marks luckily. Eurysa's bow answered the attack, felling one of the goblinoids.

The rest fled, but it was obvious that the goblinoids were watching the river. Crossing it seemed impossible. It was dangerous enough without being harassed by attackers. Devis glanced around the area. He did not have time to go around the long way. He quickly formulated a few plans. The resources of the Irregulars would have to be enough. Devis could certainly make the crossing much easier with his abilities, but he did not dare expose himself yet.

“Aldebaran, Kava. That tree there. It is close to the edge of the river,” Devis pointed, “Why don't you two do a little damage and we will see if we can not make a temporary bridge. Then Eurysa can cover us while we cross and secure the other side.”

The minotaur and the vodyanoi set to work. Aldebaran hit the tree with his two handed elven blade. Kava hacked at it with her two hatchets. Ritter watched and kept his shield at the ready for incoming projectiles. His warhammer would be of little use in chopping at a tree. Mayitso paced back and forth, wanting to find the goblinoids on the other side of the river and slay them for daring to attack his friends, the people he now considered to be his family. Eurysa merely watched for foes with an arrow nocked in her bow.

Devis Lane watched the Irregulars work. He smiled as the tree crashed to the ground, splashing into the water and muck. The current of the Tranumea River could be seen as it crashed against the tree. Devis doubted the bridge would last long against the power of water. It would last long enough for his purposes. Already Mayitso leapt on top of the temporary bridge and charged across the river. Aldebaran, Kava, and Ritter followed after the lycanthrope.

Eurysa got a pair of shots at foes, but the goblinoids quickly fled from combat. Devis and Eurysa made their way across the fallen tree. Aldebaran hacked at the tree a few times. Minus a few branches, the tree was beginning to strain against the flow of water. Devis suspected that a regular crossing would have never worked. Soon enough, the tree was ripped from its position and it tumbled downstream. Soon the tree disappeared from sight to the north.

It mattered little to Enzi's Irregulars. The mercenary group had already began its trek deeper into the Siren Swamp. They knew for sure that they were not alone. A good watch for the night would be imperative. The first night, however, was surprisingly quiet. Devis was not sure if that meant the goblinoids had truly been frightened away or if they were merely planning something. The next morning the mercenaries made their way deep into the marsh.

Keeping to firmer ground drove them further north than Devis preferred. However, they also saw more signs of the goblinoids in the south. The bugbears certainly loved the water and ambushes. Devis did not want to have to fight through all of them. It cost less time to simply avoid the area of greatest danger. The gambit paid off as the group did not run into any ambushes. The sharp sense of smell that Mayitso lent the group certainly helped with that luck.

As the group set up camp for the night, they took extra precautions once again. This was one of the best chances the goblinoids had to strike against the mercenaries. It was during Ritter's watch that the movement began. The Halz woke the others quietly. Whatever was moving crept in from the south. Then the group heard a haunting noise. Somewhere to the north a voice seemed to sing. It sounded like a lilting female voice. The movement to the south suddenly stopped at that sound.

The song became louder, the voice unleashing notes that seemed to tell a tale of sadness. Whatever was to the south of the camp turned tail and fled. They made no effort to conceal themselves. It was obvious the odd music had spooked them. Thoughts rushed through the heads of the mercenaries. The myth of the sirens now seemed less like a mere legend. The possibility of such a creature existing could not entirely be ruled out. Tales spoke of the song and of people disappearing, but only the Casean explorer Juranem had claimed to see a siren.

Now the mercenaries could hear the song. It almost sounded like a woman crying for help through music. The ethereal quality of the tune was haunting. It seemed to coincide with the slight breeze that whistled through the marsh. However, the way it was getting louder meant that it was moving closer. The mix of signs that it might be natural and might be a mythical monster drove the curiosity of most of the Irregulars. Devis Lane, however, wanted nothing to do with it.

The disguised Rakshasa had a pretty good idea what was causing the sound. The goblinoids had good reason to flee if he was right. It was what the elves had called the Orn Baer Agar. Baer was the elven term for consumption. It was suspected that the creatures called bears in the far south took their name from this term. It was likely that the term had been used by the elves talking about ravenous bears coming out of hibernation. The Hirkans had merely assumed that this term was a name for the creature.

However, an Orn Baer Agar was no bear. Agar was the elven term for blood. Orn was their term for a tree. The Orn Baer Agar was a large tree that could call prey to it with a magical ability to charm. That did not account for the sound getting closer. The trees could not move. They could merely call out. If such a thing could become fully ambulatory, it would be dangerous indeed. However, Devis reasoned that the sound, while strikingly similar to an Orn Baer Agar, was likely caused by something else.

The disguised Rakshasa wondered if a creature of the swamp used that call to scare off predators. Those who had not gotten too close to the blood drinking trees would learn to avoid the music. Those who did wander too close had a chance to fall under its spell. Hopefully it was just prey that had adapted a predator's call. If not, the group would need fire. A lot of fire.

9Oct/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0067

Devis Lane had found Enzi's Irregulars. Devis had come to chat with the man who had once been one of the greatest generals of his nation. Enzi Cala, a member of one of the great families of Feergrus, although his dishonor had humbled the family slightly. Now Devis needed the talents of his team to save Feergrus from becoming embroiled in a costly war with the lizardfolk from the Marsh of Vashim. He looked over the motley band of monstrosities that the Feergrus man had assembled.

Aldebaran Celeno was the largest of the mercenary monsters. He was a minotaur. To the eyes of Devis Lane, he was all muscle and rage. Aldebaran had lost his left horn at some point since the shapechanger had last seen him. The brute was good for killing things, but little else. Surprisingly, Devis thought much the same way of the team's smallest member. She was the vodyanoi known as Kava Roukami. Her right hand had been lopped off along with some of the forearm. She wore a prosthetic on the mangled arm. It was a brutal hatchet arm now. She held a regular hatchet in her other hand.

The third was the dwarf known as Ritter Earthbreaker. A walking tank in his armor, he wielded a heavy warhammer and a thick shield. His skills with engineering were useful, but he also did not matter much to Devis. The fourth was the gorgon named Eurysa Medenos Thulea. She was the most dangerous one in the group other than Enzi. It was her sharp mind that worried Devis. She knew Enzi the best and was the most likely to spoil the plans of the cunning shapechanger.

The final member was the most important one as far as Devis was concerned. It was the lycanthrope named Mayitso Hastine. Devis was surprised to see the nasty jagged scar across the great wolf's face. The lycanthrope had lost an eye. Devis hoped the damage would not cause issues with the plan to save Feergrus. That would not stop Devis Lane. He was one of the last of his kind. He would find a way to succeed. As a Rakshasa, he had the power to shift into various humanoid shapes as he pleased. His natural shape was of a feline humanoid. He also had the ability to read the surface thoughts of those around him.

Devis had disguised himself as a Nuvroci soldier. He blended in well with the growing military encampment. Devis approached Enzi that evening as most people settled down to sleep. Some of the guards moved off to take their shift on watch. It was a quiet time, but Devis knew there was great danger and risk in the plan he had devised. He hoped that Enzi would work willingly with him, but he assumed the Feergrus man would want nothing to do with a plan that would only benefit Feergrus and its standing in the world.

“Good evening, Enzi,” the disguised Devis said calmly.

“Good evening,” Enzi asked quizzically, not recognizing the apparently Nuvroci soldier.

“We need to talk in private, I fear it is important but I fear prying eyes and ears more,” Devis said.

“Why would you trust me with this? General Cassius Tessium is an honorable man.”

“Yes, but I fear I can only trust you with this. Anyone else who learns of this puts their life in danger,” Devis said truthfully.

“Would that not place my life in danger as well?” Enzi asked.

“Yes,” Devis admitted, “But I feel you are the only one who can handle the task at hand.”

“Then I shall listen,” Enzi stated, “But do not waste my time. There are important things yet to do. I will let Ritter know I will be right back.”

Devis nodded, such a warning to friends would change nothing. Enzi could tell the man was telling the truth. The Feergrus man had sharp senses when it came to that. That had been part of the problem with his service to the theocracy. The pair moved off to a secluded corner of the base camp. The way it had been expanded had been in a ramshackle manner. It led to several such blind corners until they were cleared out. It was not perfect, but it would have to do. In the hidden corner Devis changed into the form of a Feergrus man. It was the form that most knew as Devis Lane.

“You!” Enzi said.

“Yes,” Devis replied, “It seems this war has brought a great evil to the borders of Feergrus.”

“You speak of the lizardfolk?” Enzi asked.

“You know of how terrible the situation has become?”

“I suspected after what we have learned here.”

“We need you to help save Feergrus,” Devis stated firmly, “Or more specifically we need the aid of the lycanthropes. There may not be a large number of them left in this world, but their strengths make them worth several lizardfolk in a fight.”

“You would have them die rather than your own people?” Enzi asked, “You have the soldiers to easily turn back this invasion.”

“Yes, but that would weaken our position in the world.”

“That matters little to me now,” Enzi replied coldly, “There is a far greater danger to the world than a small horde of lizardfolk. Though oddly enough the two are related.”

“I see you speak the truth,” Devis said, “Tell me more of this. Perhaps I can help. We may not get along, but we both wish for an end to this war as well as the sound defeat of the Tarvoni aiding the goblinoids.”

“There is a reason the lizardfolk are on the warpath,” Enzi said, “The Tarvoni stole a precious relic from them and placed the blame on the Feergrus. This relic was a dragon egg. They hatched and nurtured the beast and will soon unleash it. This beast will make the war terrible indeed.”

“It is in the Goblinoid Lands?” Devis asked.

Enzi nodded, “Since it was a Tarvoni plot, they will unleash it on Agon first.”

“Their army will end such a beast. Eventually,” Devis replied.

“Yes, but at an astronomical cost. The backlash against the goblinoids will be worse. There are many who do not want this war.”

“Yes, the hatred from such a devastating attack will make the pot boil over,” Devis said, “The goblinoids will be obliterated. The northern countries will be drastically weakened. This outcome greatly favors Feergrus.”

Enzi's voice chilled again,“But not the world. You know I think bigger than just our one little country.”

“We think bigger as well,” Devis replied.

“Bigger as in ruling all the world!” Enzi growled.

“Yes, Lord Glanar Dale is the most capable creature alive. If he wasn't I would have taken over leadership myself,” Devis said, “Eventually all of Doulairen will be under our control.”

“If the people of Feergrus knew what you were really like, they would rise up and destroy you.”

“Yes, I find that humans rarely have the intellect to add one and one together, let alone see the plans in the minds of their betters,” Devis said.

“Well then. You can deal with your own problem,” Enzi said, “The dragon is a more important foe. Even the rest of the Irregulars know of it. They won't be stopped.”

“I don't plan to stop them,” Devis said, “It is possible that the Agonish army will fail to stop the goblinoids and the dragon. The chance is remote, but a monster or two to slow the dragon won't hurt. Especially since at least one of your beasts will be busy with the lizardfolk situation.”

“You don't understand, we are not helping you at all. We need all the manpower we have to stop the dragon.”

“Exactly. So I don't want you to have all of your manpower,” Devis said.

Enzi furious tone grew, “You have all the manpower you need to stop the lizardfolk. Leave us alone. We will not help you. That is the end of the story.”

“I am afraid you are correct, Enzi Cala,” Devis Lane replied with a smirk, “I suspected you would be resistant. I did not expect the news you brought. For that I thank you. However, there is a matter that we need to settle. You violated several laws of Feergrus. The punishment decided for those crimes was death. Your execution was delayed as long as you were useful.”

Enzi merely gurgled. Devis' hand was on the soldier's chest. Blood had splattered across the wall behind Enzi. The aging Feergrus man slumped to the ground.

“Sorry to kill you in the middle of my speech,” Devis replied softly, “But I expect once you realized what my plan was, you might have resisted or rose the alarm.”

“What... What are you?” Enzi gasped weakly.

“I am a monster, like your precious Irregulars. Karrum, Glanar, and I are the last three. The fourth set sail across the ocean before we knew how foolish a notion that was. We have been here the whole of the Sixth Age. We barely survived the ending of the Fifth Age.”

“Sixth Age?”

“Yes,” Devis replied quietly, “The Sixth Age of Doulairen. This world is far older than most know. I have revealed a few of its minor secrets to you now. Think of this knowledge as a gift for the work you have done. Now you will serve me in death, as is the way of all natives of Feergrus. Only your service will not be as one of the undead.”

Enzi sputtered trying to talk but Devis shushed him. Thanks to the magic of the Ravaleians, Devis was not worried about his spells catching the eye of the Magehunter. With a few spells, Devis completely eliminated the body of the once great general. With naught but dust left of the once great man, Devis sighed. The Rakshasa shifted his shape to look exactly like Enzi, then put on clothes that matched what the general normally wore. This would be the greatest role Devis had yet played.

He had to fool the intellect of the gorgon. He had to fool the nose of the lycanthrope. These were the challenges that Devis looked forward to. He worried less about the other monsters. It would be good practice for the Rakshasa's skills. He knew a lot about Enzi Cala. He had read the surface thoughts of the man for many years, and had done so again before killing him. He believed he could pull off this one great con. If he failed, he merely had to slay them all and move on to his next plan.

If there was one thing Devis always had, it was a backup plan. His machinations sometimes failed. He had honed his skills in deception to a sharp edge. His plans had the backing of over four thousand years of experience. However, circumstances could change at a moment's notice. Things did not always go as expected. He had assassinated kings, created conflict between nations, and helped to create a religion. The very shape of the world as it now sat was because of his actions.

He had ended the war between Casea and Agon. He had started the hatred between elves and the Halz. That little subterfuge had not taken much work. Acting as the messenger for each group, he had relayed false information. Both sides preferred isolation. Giving them a reason to trust outsiders had solidified both races as marginal players. As an allied force, they could have been a thorn in the side of the Rakshasa's plans. Now it was too late. Both races were dying.

Yet such things were in the distant past. Now Devis Lane had a new future to forge. He could foresee a greatly weakened Agon needing the aid of Feergrus in its darkest hour. Even if things did not go that direction, Devis already had plans in the works to have influence over the next ruler of the kingdom. He always tried to have multiple plans in motion. For the moment, he concentrated on his current plan. He would need to become someone else.

The powerful and ancient monster took a deep breath and his new disguise spoke its first words, “I am Enzi Cala.”

2Oct/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0066

Aldebaran grunted, “Burn it. Nothing good can come of it.”

“Very well,” the gorgon hissed, “Hopefully cleansing it by fire well prevent the spread.”

“Even if we did study it,” Ritter stated, “It would not tell us where it came from. The source is beyond our reach. Better to be safe than to have it spread to the humans.”

“Although,” Kava croaked, “Mayitso did have it in his mouth. Hopefully that won't cause it to infect him too.”

“Maybe that Ravaleian has some more stuff to flush out toxins,” Kava said, “I don't know if I wanna trust him with a sample of this goo. It seems too tempting for all the weird alchemy he might do. Who else would even be able to examine it properly?”

Soon flames licked at the immense rock falcon. The pyre would erase the beast and hopefully whatever had corrupted it. It was one more danger removed, but the fact that such things occurred haunted the five inhuman mercenaries. The cause behind it could be many things. If it was a new trick from the Tarvoni mages of the Abyss Cult, then it was potentially an extreme threat. There was little they could do. They returned to the encampment to inform the people there of their findings.

General Cassius Tessium nodded on hearing the information, “A tough choice you had to make, but I approve. The safety of all our people is paramount. You should have the wolf checked out. We don't want him getting sick too.”

Enzi led the lycanthrope to the Ravaleian. Jenner Gann would be able to do quite a lot. He was able to weave spells without the need of a formula. It was common among the Tarvoni to find such sorcerers. In Ravalei, it was more common to find wizards that used spellbooks. Each had their own advantages and disadvantages. For a sorcerer like Jenner, the advantage was in flexibility. He would be able to cast the spells needed to detect any odd disease that Mayitso might have contracted. Healing such things, however, was far more difficult.

“We need some help,” Enzi stated.

Jenner looked up at the Feergrus man from his seat, “Of course. What can I do for you?”

“Mayitso here recently came into contact with a creature infected with some sort of disease or something that we did not recognize. As we do not even know how the infection spreads, we thought it best to get him checked out as he had his jaws on the tainted creature.”

“I'll gladly do what I can,” the Ravaleian replied, “If I do find something, we may want to check all of your team. If it is airborne it could be extremely dangerous.”

Jenner wove spell after spell over the lycanthrope, “Well, I do not detect anything odd as far as I can tell. I am not an expert on medical advice however.”

“I would trust magic to find things that are less obvious to our naked eyes. Thank you for helping.”

“Aiding others is something I do quite often,” Jenner smiled, “My limited mobility since the accident with my leg means I often arrive last to places. It gives me time to think and be calm about my decisions. The practice at that has helped many times in my career. These few things I do here are but minor aids.”

***

Voltagh rested comfortably. His best orcs now hid deep within the mountains. Many goblins that were allies to Ranum now served them, bringing supplies. Their disappearance had been explained as them setting up for the major assault. Supposedly the forces would be unleashed to harry the northern front when the drake was finally released. Another group would be sent through the swamp and across the lake to fight on the western front. Ranum had already siphoned off a lot of the support for that attack.

The commander most loyal to the leaders of the dragon assault would all be joining the main thrust to the south. Ranum expected that most of them would die. Those who were smart enough to retreat would find very different leadership when they returned. Those who did not fall into line would be eliminated. The remaining goblinoids would be the strongest of the survivors. The weakest had been sent out to show the current leadership that they were doing something. The cull would make the race stronger.

Then the goblinoids would grow again. Ranum had already been working on the breeding program. The current crop of children were born of the best stock. The only thing left was to procure the artifacts that lay buried in the mountain. With them, no foe would be able to stand in their way. A flurry of activity caught the attention of Voltagh and Ranum. A goblin carrying something rushed up to the ancient goblin Ranum.

“We found something!” the goblin chirped.

Ranum looked at what the goblin had dug up. It was a sword, still with hardened rock and lava covering much of it. However, it was unmistakable. It was one of the Three Brothers. The blade was made of orichalcum and the dwarven runes on it talked of the power of the storms. It was the Eye of the Maelstrom. The goblin that brought it had every right to chirp happily. Ranum felt his own spirits lift. The first of the artifacts had been uncovered.

“Most excellent,” the goblin wizard replied finally, “The other blades should be near.”

“Yeah,” the much younger goblin said, “Although we have had to deal with fresh magma. It has made things slow. We will continue now that we know we must be near.”

The goblin ran off as Ranum looked to Voltagh, “Things are looking up. Now we just need to find the other two blades. We need the Heart of the Tempest and more importantly the Spirit of the Cataclysm. With all three we will be able to defeat any foe, no matter how powerful.”

Voltagh looked at the blade, his eyes filling with greed, “It... It is beautiful. I can feel the power, even from here.”

“Yes, we must be careful. It can overwhelm a user with its sheer power.”

“It did not overwhelm the messenger.”

“These blades are unlike any other. They will only allow the powerful to wield them. They would want someone like you, a skilled warrior. Yet their power would dominate your mind. I have worked with Navras all of his life to train his mind for the responsibility of wielding these weapons. Even with all my training, I worry that the blades will win. Now that I have one to study, perhaps I can better prepare one to wield them.”

Voltagh had trouble lifting his eye from the majestic blade. The orc suddenly pondered how long he should wait until he made his move. Ranum was an excellent tactician, but the Orc knew that someday he absolutely had to hold that sword in his own hands. It was meant for someone greater than some young hobgoblin. Voltagh would become the most powerful warrior in the world. The time was not ripe yet. It would come soon. It had to come soon.

***

A new batch of supplies and fresh soldiers had arrived at the encampment. The first of the golems had arrived as well. A pair of stone golems would now aid the northern front, Jenner had won over many of the people in the camp. His frank and helpful manner had helped. Tales of his times in the factory crafting golems as well as other tales of life in Ravalei had shown the people of the encampment what the country was really like.

The power of the Rava Coast Trading Company had been in its freedom. It had mercenaries to spare when the rest of Ravalei was busy crafting golems and other weapons for war. The greed of the company had grown rampant while the country had been busy with other concerns. The war had enabled the evil that had occurred. It was a sad testament to human failings.

Ritter sat thinking about his adventure in the land of the open sky. The Halz had spent much of his life in the tunnels beneath the Nuvro Range. Humans had been odd creatures that lived without the comfort of rock all around them. They were growing rapidly, however. That was a trait that the Halz did not possess. Ritter's kin were shrinking in number from year to year. The dwindling numbers had driven many of the Halz to look for other solutions.

Some of those had decided that their culture was to blame. They decided it was time to study the other cultures of the world. What was it that made the humans grow so fast? Was it merely physical? Was there more to it? The Halz certainly had many problems other than merely a low birth rate. The seven surviving clans had separated. They did not get along well anymore. It was rare to marry outside ones clan. That often meant that there were few choices for marriage unless you were willing to marry close relatives.

The Halz knew that such marriages would not work. Ritter had heard of abnormalities in human lines that were inbred, but in a Halz family it was far more obvious. Perhaps the Halz were already too closely related. Inbreeding only created monstrosities that could not survive for long. The seven clans had to be reunited. It was the only way that Ritter could see to solving the problem. He had hoped that he could learn how to make that possible by studying the humans.

Instead he had found the humans separated into several different clans of their own. Each country had its own character and goals. These often conflicted with the other countries. The incidents with the Ahk Separatists in Feergrus and dealing with the Rava Coast Trading company showed that factions inside each country also caused problems. Ritter had seen much of human nature within the past eighteen months. Each new fact he learned made him wonder if humans could be the answer to anything.

He was not sure how the humans did not end up destroying themselves. Even in the face of a war against the goblinoids, the humans had trouble working together. Ritter hoped that if ever such a threat turned against the Halz, then his dwarven brethren would work together against such an evil without any backstabbing. However, he had seen one of his own kind show a lack of honor. Gierig Silveraxe had proven that the Halz had deep flaws as well.

“You look deep in thought,” Eurysa hissed as the gorgon slithered near.

“Just pondering the future,” Ritter sighed.

“Live in the moment. It is all we have. We can't change the past. The future comes whether we want it or not. We can only do whatever is right with the time that fate has granted us.”

“You know why I came into the human lands.”

“To save your people. I know. You may not ever find the answers you seek. I have seen the decline of many races. The end of the gorgons, minotaurs, and vodyanoi as well. The lycanthropes retreat further into the woods and there are less sightings of them. You rarely hear talk of the elves anymore, even from the Tarvoni who once dealt with them. The giants rarely leave their homes on top of the mountains. Only those of the mountains deal with them at all.”

Ritter nodded, “Even the Halz rarely encounter them anymore. Still it is not safe to try to wind through mountain passes. Even the humans go around Nuvro Range. No one who tries to cross them directly ever survives. I can not say if it is giants or if there are other dangers. My people only come to the surface to repair the aqueduct systems. We need to keep water flowing to our homes.”

“It seems the only races that grow are the humans and the goblinoids.”

“The goblinoids breed like rats, their culture drives them to near slaughter. Only their sheer numbers keep them alive. I expect their future is dim. If the humans continue to grow in numbers and power, they will simply overwhelm the goblinoids.”

Eurysa hissed, “Perhaps our time here is done.”

Ritter narrowed his eyes, “I am not ready to surrender yet. My people were strong once. I will see them prosper again. Enzi has shown that humans have a good nature as well. I will follow him for now. Perhaps I will glean something useful from his nobility, if nothing else.”

25Sep/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0065

The graveyard seemed somehow creepier than usual to the ranger. It was situated closer to the mountains, where rocks could be gathered to create cairns. The ranger patrolling the area felt like he was being watched. The distance was too great for him to see, but one of the rocks on the mountain seemed to move. The ranger continued on his patrol. The rock, however, suddenly leapt up off the mountain and took flight. It was a rock falcon.

The mighty birds blended in well with rocks, but often liked to sit on the walls of stone buildings as well. They were more obvious sitting on a building. They were ugly to the human eyes. Most called them gargoyles. They were foul tempered beasts, but they rarely attacked anything as large as a human. This gargoyle felt different. Pain had wracked its body for days. Something was growing on it. Something dark, oily, and it had the smell of rotted vegetation.

The creature had found itself larger and stronger. Yet now it was hungry. The humans now looked much smaller and weaker than they did before. The mighty bird flew above the forest, watching the Nuvroci Ranger below. As the ranger walked into a clearing, the falcon swooped down. The claws of the mighty bird felt the satisfying bite of its talons in soft flesh. The human yelled out in pain, but the cruel beak of the hideous gargoyle squelched that sound with a sickening crunch.

***

A few small goblinoid patrols had kept the base camp on its toes. The rangers were constantly on patrol. There had not been any major assault since the horde of orcs, but it seemed like it was only a matter of time. Beren Gendar was doing much better, the toxins had been mostly flushed from his body. He still was not in peak condition, but he was in no danger of succumbing to the assassin's poison. Things were going about as well as could be expected during wartime.

Enzi had been slowly preparing for a long trip. Eventually the Irregulars would have to move to the southern front. It was there that the dragon would strike. Since Enzi planned to take the long way there, he would need considerable lead time to reach the war front. They still had at least two months before they had to leave, but Enzi worked on being prepared just in case something changed. The Feergrus man was not sure that he could trust the goblin that had told him of the drake that would attack Agon.

However, Enzi could not take a chance. A strike in that direction would slaughter thousands of innocent people. The destruction would bring untold horror upon both the humans and then the goblinoids. General Cassius Tessium knew that the Irregulars could not stay forever. Enzi had informed the Nuvroci man about the drake, and the general had sent messages of about the dangers to the leader of the southern front. Hopefully all the information would make the entrance of the Irregulars less contentious.

Soon all of the rangers began to report in. They relayed what they had seen while scouting the area. However, one of the rangers did not return. Enzi sent the Irregulars out to search for the missing man. Mayitso's nose would come in handy for that job. Aldebaran, Eurysa, Kava, and Ritter would be able to handle almost any kind of problem. The aging Feergrus man remained behind. He had accompanied them directly on several of their recent adventures. His aching joints reminded him that he was not young anymore.

Mayitso led the rest of the inhuman mercenaries to the area where the ranger was supposed to patrol. The lycanthrope kept his nose to the ground, snorting out any clues he could find. Eventually he caught an odd scent wafting through the air. A few sniffs confirmed the direction and the immense wolf trotted towards the unusual odor. Another odor could be detected over the odd scent. The new scent was blood. This made Mayitso increase his pace.

What the group found was gruesome. Bones and torn flesh were all that was left. Ribs poked up out of the bloody mess. The vodyanoi gazed over the scene with her huge orange eyes. She had the most knowledge about wounds and what might cause them. Kava had studied anatomy for quite some time, using her knowledge to better slay her foes. Now it would be used to investigate the hideous remains for a cause of death.

“This looks like the work of a large animal, claws and beak.”

“A griffin?” Eurysa hissed.

“If it is, it is a small one,” Kava croaked, “I can't imagine a baby griffin would be brave enough to attack a human.”

“Maybe rock falcons?” Ritter asked, familiar with gargoyles.

“Not unless it is a gigantic one. Whatever did this was about the size of a horse.”

Ritter nodded, “Rock Falcons don't get much larger than a human.”

Eurysa also nodded, “Griffins do not come in such a small size unless they are but babies. This is a mystery.”

Mayitso was sniffing around the area. Something did not smell right. It was hard to tell what the scent was, the sharp tang of blood covered much of it. It reminded Mayitso of rotted vegetation. Whatever it was smelled wrong. His nose had never encountered such an odd smell. He was familiar with the sent of blood, of rotted flesh, of rotted plant matter. Whatever this was had to be something he had not encountered before. Whatever the Irregulars were dealing with, it was something deadly.

***

Feeding had been good for the rock vulture. The hunger pangs had diminished. Yet now other pains overtook them. The creature felt as if it was being torn apart. Growth like black oily vines spread through its body painfully. The creature grew larger. Its wings grew harder, the skin on the arms becoming tough as steel. The growth spurt was painful, but when it ended the creature felt its hunger return. The unnatural growth had sapped the calories it had consumed. It needed to feed again.

It took flight and soared near the mountains. It saw a lone griffin near its nest. The falcon suddenly realized that the griffin was not much larger than it anymore. Such a huge creature would be good eating. The griffin tried to fight back. Its beak did not pierce the toughness of the falcon's newly hardened skin. The falcon attacked with beak and claws, but also buffeted the griffin with its now immensely powerful wings. The mighty griffin was no match for the gargoyle.

The gargoyle feasted upon the griffin, ripping and tearing flesh in a desperate attempt to devour as much of it as it could, as quickly as it could. The hunger pangs drove the beast nearly to madness. Soon the griffin had been devoured and the hunger pangs dimmed once more. The creature rested. Then the pains of growth came again, enraging the beast. There was nothing it could strike out against to avenge its pain. Finally the rock falcon slipped into unconsciousness.

When it awoke it found itself nearly unable to fit where it had slept. It had grown again. Now it was every bit as large as the mighty griffin it had devoured, if not slightly larger. Pain still maddened the creature, but also hunger had once more taken hold of the monster. It took flight once more, looking for prey. Far below in the woods it spotted an eclectic collection of tasty looking morsels. Once each might have been threatening in size. Now these humanoid sized creatures looked so tiny and weak.

***

Mayitso's ears swiveled. They took in many sounds but even they could not catch the sound of an enormous rock falcon swooping down until it was too late. The gargoyle went after the creature that was easiest to see. Its talons scraped across the shiny metal armor of the Halz. Ritter grunted as he was lifted off the ground by the monstrous beast. The rest of the Irregulars let out sounds of surprise and shock.

“What is that thing?” Kava croaked wildly, “It looks like one of those damn gargoyles but something is seriously wrong with it!”

Eurysa brought her bow around and fired off an arrow at the beast as it tried to fly away with Ritter. The arrow struck the immense gargoyle. The ichor that flowed out smelled horrific. The dwarf nearly retched as the scent filled his nostrils. The ichor was not the only thing that smelled. The creature had a scent that reminded the dwarf of rotted vegetation. This close to it, the smell was almost overpowering. Ritter desperately swung his heavy warhammer at the flying monstrosity.

The warhammer hit the creature on the leg and it squawked. The pain the beast was in had inured it to other pains. Another arrow hit the beast, hitting it in the wing. The creature shuddered and turned its course. It swooped down at the ting that kept shooting painful barbs at it. Aldebaran and Kava were ready and waiting for the gargoyle as it swooped at Eurysa. Two hatchets and a two handed elven blade struck the creature hard. Mayitso placed himself between the creature and Eurysa to take any blows it might throw.

The gargoyle flailed wildly with its rock hard wing arms. Its talon tried to crush Ritter. Only his Armor saved his life. Even with that, the Halz could feel the pressure. He could hear the sound of the metal under great stress. The beak of the rock falcon shot out at Mayitso. The lycanthrope returned the favor, snapping at the gargoyle. As soon as his mouth touched the beast, however, Mayitso regretted it. He yelped and rolled on the ground, taking dirt and plants in his mouth.

He spit it all back out. However, even the taste of the forest sod was far superior to what the gargoyle tasted like. The scent of the creature also filled the lycanthrope's nose. The terrible scents and flavors overwhelmed the poor wolf. He would be of no further use in the fight. The minotaur and the vodyanoi hacked at the gargoyle. The creature screeched and attacked at random. The gorgon slithered back away from the melee and took aim with her bow.

The next arrow hit the maddened monster in the head, even as it knocked Kava and Aldebaran away with a pair of wing buffets. Ritter kept trying to force his way free by beating the creature with his warhammer. Another arrow to the head finally caused the beast to stop. The gargoyle collapsed to the ground, still shuddering and convulsing. Aldebaran used his muscle to help extract the Halz from underneath the heap. The group looked at the slain monstrosity.

“I have never seen such a rock falcon!” Ritter panted.

“Look at this,” Kava croaked, pointing out the black oily vines that were now part of the creature, “This looks almost like a plant.”

“Smells kind of like dead plant too,” the minotaur agreed.

“We have seen this before,” Eurysa hissed, “Only in a different way. The odd dagger that stole the mind of the ranger.”

“Yes, there was a black oily looking plant on that,” Ritter stated, “Do you think they are related?”

“Can we afford to take that chance?” the gorgon asked.

“I say we burn this smelly hulk. Cleanse it with fire,” Kava said with a leering grin.

“You just like destroying things,” Aldebaran sighed.

“And?” Kava asked as she tried to give puppy dog eyes towards the group.

“We probably should destroy this. Mayitso certainly didn't like the smell or taste of it. We might want to take a sample back to the encampment,” the Halz said.

“I am not sure if it is safe to handle any of this,” the gorgon hissed, “Especially if it is related to the dagger. I would rather none of us are driven mad. Our reputation as monsters puts us on shaky enough ground as it is. Still, I would also rather not see this spread. Rock falcons do not reach this size, nor this ferocity. I would have everyone's thoughts.”

Mayitso showed his thoughts wordlessly as he strode over toward the corpse. He lifted one leg and showed how little he wanted to ever deal with the creature again with a steaming stream of urine.

“Ugh. Mayitso!” Kava croaked, “Why do you think of all the good ideas first?”

18Sep/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0064

The assassin had left a trail of magic. His camouflage spell had been on himself, it had followed him for the entire duration. The Tarvoni expected the Magehunter to be able to follow it. The trail he had taken went across several traps. He only needed one trap, but it was possible to miss one or more of the traps by sheer luck. It was the only way to make sure they were concealed well enough that an experienced Magehunter would not spot them.

The Shadow Cult assassin circled around to watch his trail. He would watch how the Magehunter tracked him. He would see how Beren handled his traps. Then when the Agonish man least expected it, the assassin would strike. The Tarvoni watched and waited for his prey. He was prepared to end this quickly, but he knew that it was easy to disrupt a well laid plan. If his first attempt failed, he had a few backup plans. He was a professional. He was careful and took his time. It was why he was still alive.

He sat in wait, using only his natural skills in stealth and camouflage. His spell had long since worn off. From what he knew of the Magehunters, the magical trail would not lead to his current position. As time passed, he worried that the trail he had left would fade as well. He had seen Beren Gendar enter the encampment. He was surprised the Magehunter was not immediately out to track him down. Each hour that passed meant that the assassin's trail became harder to track. Finally the Tarvoni admitted defeat for the moment. He needed to learn what had kept his prey from following.

He slipped through the woods silently and swiftly. He soon arrived at the encampment and watched the walls from the forest edge. Things were moving normally. The assassin did not dare move closer. He might be spotted. Using magic while a Magehunter was near was certain to draw unwanted attention. He merely surveyed the situation, waiting to learn more. He hoped for an opportunity to learn more, but he knew how to be patient.

***

After a chat with Jenner Gann, Beren noticed that the magic aura was quickly fading. If it had not been woven by the Gearwork Master, the base needed checked. It was possible that a Tarvoni had slipped near and done something. The base quickly went on alert and searched for any signs of trouble. After making sure the base was secure, the trail had faded to a point where the Magehunter could not easily follow it. He was able to discern that it led into the woods. That certainly cleared the Ravaleian of doing anything.

Finding no sign of trouble worried Beren, but it may have just been a scout determining the defenses of the base before he struck. That was worrisome enough. Yet now Beren was around to hunt down the mage and discover his purpose. The Magehunter had found his purpose for the moment. There was no need to wander far to find a mage, one had now come to him. That did not make his job any easier, however. If the mage had any idea that a Magehunter was near, then hunting him down would be quite difficult.

Mayitso sniffed around. The scent of his enemy was muddled. Whoever it was knew how to disguise themselves in more than one way. The lycanthrope kept his nose and ears on alert for anything odd. Eurysa's sharp eyes found some use on top of the walls. Kava, Aldebaran, and Ritter rested for the moment, although the vodyanoi was itching for a fight. Enzi chatted with Cassius as the two discussed what the intrusion of a mage might mean.

The scream of pain broke the growing tension, only to replace it with a different tension. One of the guards fell from the wall. Beren could see the sharp electric blue of magic in the air. The Magehunter dashed past the fallen man as medics rushed to the hurt soldier's side. A blast of acid had struck the guard in the face. It was a brutal attack. Eurysa moved to that wall with her bow in hand looking towards the area the spell had come from. Beren dropped over the wall, sliding down it to land on the ground. It was not the softest landing, but he was unharmed.

Mayitso took a longer path towards the area, exiting the gate. With his four legged speed, he could eventually catch up to Beren. The rest of the Irregulars were left behind, much to Kava's disappointment. Eurysa remained on the wall, prepared to provide support with her archery skills if needed. It would not be much help if the mage had retreated deep into the woods, but it was all she could do for the moment. Eurysa trusted that Mayitso would be enough back up, especially as Beren was more than capable of defeating most mages.

Beren saw a trail of magic that led into the forest. The mage must have woven a spell on himself to leave such a blatant trail. The Magehunter thought it was his lucky day. The mage's scouting had come before Beren had arrived. Beren assumed the mage had not realized a Magehunter of Agon was near. Beren expected the mage to find cover and hide once he heard someone chasing him. He would not see what was chasing him until it was far too late.

Beren let his eyes wander, taking in the whole area around him. The trail of magic was still clear, although it was weak. Such a weak mage did not seem like much of a challenge. Even the weakest foe could strike a deadly blow if they caught you by surprise, however. This was why Beren tried to keep his focus wide, watching for trouble from any angle. That was why he suddenly tumbled forward. He rolled back to his feet, sword in hand, to face the foe he heard behind him. However it was only Mayitso.

The lycanthrope barreled past Beren, nose to the ground. He was tracking the foe by smell. The Magehunter followed Mayitso's lead. Beren kept his senses sharp, allowing Mayitso's inhuman senses aid as well. The massive wolf suddenly yelped. A trap snapped shut on one of the lycanthrope's legs. Beren's mind filled with possibilities at the discovery of such a trap. The assassin knew his time had come and pounced at the distracted Agonish warrior.

The poisoned blade of the assassin met the buckler on Beren's left arm. The distraction of the trap had not been enough to dull the Magehunter's reaction time. Beren slashed with his broad sword but the Tarvoni spun and almost seemed to flow past the blade. The assassin moved into position for a strike at Beren's now unprotected flank. However a kick from Mayitso kept the assassin off balance long enough for Beren to bring his guard up. The fight drifted slowly away from Mayitso.

The lycanthrope began to gnaw at the trap on his leg to try to free himself. It had not been able to actually harm the lycanthrope, but it was limiting his mobility. The assassin stabbed at Beren who parried the attack. The Tarvoni seemed to flow past the parried blade again, moving with uncanny grace. He was a professional warrior. The assassin might have been a match for Beren, especially with the poison on the blade. One cut would end the fight. It put Beren on the defensive. The Magehunter could see the gleam of the liquid on the blade as the sunlight filtered down through the trees.

Beren watched his foe as the assassin pushed the assault. The Tarvoni's acrobatic twists, spins, and rolls kept Beren on his guard. The Tarvoni rolled towards a bush and came up from behind it with a small crossbow. The bolt flew fast and true. Beren was able to catch it with his shield but the assassin used that opening to diver under the Magehunter's defenses. The Tarvoni's blade struck true, shredding the magehunter's tabard. However, the mail shirt that Beren wore kept the blade from doing any real damage.

Beren kept calm and pressed his foe, hoping to wear down the Tarvoni. The assassin was using a lot of energy in his acrobatic moves. Beren made a few conservative strikes, keeping his defense up. However, Beren saw the Tarvoni grin. The mage had not used up all of his tricks. With a leap the mage danced back from Beren, then unleashed a magical spell. It was a blast of acid, similar to what had burned the guard on the wall. It splashed on Beren's chest, burning his armor and his skin.

The Magehunter grunted as the pain swept over him. The assassin took advantage of the new opening, charging in for the kill. Beren fought through the pain and brought his buckler up to stop the blow. The assassin grabbed Beren's arm with his free hand and drove the blade home. Beren tried to avoid it as best he could but the blade still sank in the Magehunter's shoulder. The Tarvoni ripped the blade back out with a slight chuckle. The laugh was cut short as a mass of fur erupted up over Beren.

A snarling maw gnashed its fangs upon the surprised assassin's face. Blood flew as Mayitso tore the Tarvoni man apart. The lycanthrope shook himself off and turned to look at Beren. The Agonish man was laying on the ground, burnt by acid, bleeding, and twitching as the poison began to flow through his veins. The great wolf carefully nabbed Beren's clothing with his jaws and began to drag the man back towards the encampment. There was little else that Mayitso could do, he was not good at dealing with wounds.

Aid came quickly once Eurysa spotted the pair. Sweat rolled down's Beren's forehead as his body tried to fight the toxins coursing through it. The medics bound up his wounds but they had nothing to help against an unknown poison. It was very possible that the assassin had succeeded, even in death. There were few ways to aid a person with toxins in their blood. It was something that if it was solved was only done with the aid of magic. There was only one person with magic in the encampment, and none trusted him. That man sat in his tent, mostly unaware of the situation.

Enzi approached Jenner, “Do you know anything of poisons?”

“I am no expert. I do carry some Rava herbal tea to flush out toxins. Is there a problem? I saw the rush of people.”

“An attack by a Tarvoni mage. He killed one soldier with a blast of acid and has poisoned a second man.”

“Take the tea then,” Jenner said, “Our alchemists make it. It is slightly magical and will lower the toxicity in anyone who drinks it. It might not be enough to save your man, but it will certainly improve his chances.”

“Then come and administer it,” Enzi said.

“As you wish.”

The Ravaleian and the Feergrus man approached the convulsing body of Beren Gendar. The Ravaleian pulled out a vial of liquid. Enzi held the Magehunter's head up as Jenner poured the fluid in the Agonish man's mouth. One of the medics nearby used his knowledge to force Beren to swallow. The next few minutes were harrowing. The convulsions slowed but did not stop. Within an hour, however, Beren's condition seemed to improve.

Finally Beren coughed out, “Is everyone safe?”

“Thinking of others first?” Jenner asked, “Yes, the mage only killed the guard on the wall and hurt you. Everyone else is fine. The poison does not seem to have killed you, but I would take it easy for a while if I was you.”

“Thanks. That foe was not a normal Tarvoni mage. He was not trained in magic, his skills in that area were weak. This was someone who had spent his life learning to fight in melee.”

“An assassin then,” Jenner stated, “Not of the Abyss Cult then. They hired one of the Shadow Cult I would expect. They are incredibly deadly in combat.”

“I noticed,” Beren chuckled.

11Sep/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0063

Jenner Gann walked towards the human encampment the held the northern front. The front was quite large and the Ravaleian wondered how such an open border could ever be made secure. The war needed the aid of the Ravaleians. That much was obvious to Jenner. The sour relations were a major problem. Jenner had never had a high regard for the Rava Coast Trading Company. Now it was completely nonexistent. Jenner leaned hard on his staff.

He had lost a foot many years ago in an accident. Scars ran up that leg as well. It had happened where he had been working on a golem. A single wrong step. A stumble. Then his leg was caught in the gearwork of a mighty iron golem. The metal gears had done a lot of damage before the engineers could extricate Jenner. He now wear a prosthetic that allowed him to walk more easily, although the staff was a large help as well. It also made him seem less threatening. This would hopefully be a boon to his mission to bring peace between the Ravaleians and the Nuvroci.

He approached the gate as a voice yelled out in Nuvro, “Who goes there?”

Jenner replied in the same language, “A traveler with a message for General Cassius Tessium.”

The Nuvroci soldiers opened the gate, but watched the Ravaleian man with deep suspicion. Jenner could not blame them. Betrayals were hard to forgive. The hypocrisy was the tough rules that the Rava Coast Trading company had in case of mutiny upon their trading ships. Jenner's eyes flitted across the camp interior. He was no expert in military matters, but he was surprised upon seeing Enzi and his monstrous mercenaries. He had heard the tales, but they did not prepare him for their inhuman appearances.

Jenner ignored them for the moment and continued on towards the general's quarters while all eyes rested upon him. The mistrust was palpable. Jenner limped into Cassius' tent and disappeared from view. The Ravaleian quickly assessed the Nuvroci general. The stress of leading the war on the northern front had already begun to prematurely age Cassius. Grey hairs and wrinkles had begun to make their presence known. Grim determination seemed set in the Nuvroci man's eyes.

“Greetings general. I am Jenner Gann. I am one of the gearwork masters of Ravalei. We recently learned of the actions of the Rava Coast Trading Company. It was obviously a mistake to trust that they would do what is best for the good of all the people of Doulairen.”

“Do you think anyone would trust you more?” the general asked with a calm voice that did not betray what the Nuvroci man was feeling.

“Trust needs to be rebuilt, whether it is me or another. The northern front needs all of us to work together. Many of the most powerful people in Ravalei have taken notice after the betrayal here. The Rava Coast Trading Company ended up firing the head of their business and put a new man in charge. They lost a lot of trust at home as well as here. They will not be involved in the war on the northern front. They certainly have no influence over me. I was never their largest fan to begin with. Their public relations will be busy proving they have gotten rid of all of those that caused problems. I have my doubts, but it will at least keep them busy while those who wish to actually help can come to end this war.”

“I can not disagree that more aid will be needed to fully secure the north. I hate to think how many raiding parties have slipped past the rangers and headed deeper into Nuvroc. Most of the goblinoid attacks have focused directly upon us here. We make for a nice goal. The smarter move would be to avoid us using the massive forest area to go around us. We have lost many of our rangers, making circumvention far too easy.”

“Then I would imagine it has already happened. The goblinoids can be quite canny. My proposal is simple. Ravalei will be providing several wood golems for use in the war. I plan to place them at spots along the line we would like to hold. Your rangers can help with the most advantageous positioning. If it at least causes the goblinoids to alter their routes to more predictable areas then it would be a win. If the goblinoids are foolish enough to actually fight the golems, that is even better.”

“A wood golem will not stand up forever against the goblinoids.”

“No golem can last forever against a sustained assault. They can cause a lot of damage before they fall. Just the threat of their existence causes enemies to shift their plan to something easier. No one would invade Ravalei without first thinking about our border defenses. Even the most foolhardy goblinoid would think twice before making a blind assault.”

“I imagine you have not met some of the more foolhardy goblinoids.”

“There is a point where one stops being a fool and is merely insane.”

***

The Tarvoni assassin watched the base camp as best he could from a hidden position. The fact that the soldiers had cleared the forest around the base to give a clear line of sight meant that the assassin did not have the best view. That mattered little to him at the moment. His first goal was assessment of the outside defenses. He wanted to be sure of where the Magehunter was before he approached closer. With magic, he could certainly make his way to the base undetected.

The passage of the Ravaleian did not go unnoticed. It meant nothing to the Tarvoni, Jenner was not his target. The Tarvoni slowly circled the base, examining its walls, its weaknesses, and looking for patterns followed by the guards on the walls. The soldiers were professionals, but that made them prone to routine. It mattered little against most of the goblinoids. For an assassin, this was a deadly mistake. The Tarvoni smirked. He believed the residents of the encampment should feel lucky that he had only been hired to eliminate one Magehunter.

After watching for several hours, he determined the Magehunter was not there. It was time to get closer and leave a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. The assassin wove a spell to conceal his presence. It was a physical illusion that made him difficult to see. As long as he was careful, he was effectively invisible. It was a useful spell, but one that could easily be ruined. Using his illusory concealment, the assassin made his way to the wall of the military encampment.

His skills in climbing made sure that the wall itself was no obstacle. The assassin used stealth to slip past the guards on the wall. His magical camouflage gave him an advantage in that endeavor. The Tarvoni quickly found a vantage point from which to survey the inside of the encampment more closely. He took particular note of Enzi's Irregulars. The monsters were a unique blend of skills and talents. They might be dangerous. He observed the Ravaleian Jenner Gann leaving a central tent.

The mistrust of the residents of the encampment was obvious to the assassin. The Tarvoni filed that small fact away in case it became useful later. The assassin sat unobserved and listened. He was fluent in nearly every language on the continent. He hoped to learn more of his target's whereabouts. Any other interesting tidbits he might come across could be sold to any number of information brokers. The Tarvoni was not adverse to earning a few extra coins wherever possible.

***

For Beren, he had been away from the encampment for nearly a month. Time had caused hair to grow out on his face, giving him a grizzled look. His clothing was in rough shape and his armor could use a few minor repairs as well. It had been a rough trip into the Goblinoid Lands. However it had been fruitful. The heads of two Tarvoni sorcerers hung from his belt. They had both been from the Abyss Cult. Beren had to delve deep into enemy territory to reach them.

The mages had done their best to keep themselves insulated by hordes of goblinoids. The losses they had taken by the Magehunters had made the Tarvoni far more cautious. It made the jobs of the Magehunters far more dangerous. Several had died in attempts to knock out the Tarvoni power that fueled much of the Fifth Goblinoid War. For the moment, Beren needed to rest. His gear needed maintenance and he needed time to unwind. Time with other humans would be welcome as well.

Most welcome, however, would be a chance to clean up. His face paint that marked him as a Magehunter of Agon had been reapplied several times. It had dried and caked on his face. It had also mixed with the moisture and dirt of the Siren Swamp. Between that, the dirt from travel, and the blood from his kills, Beren felt quite foul. The cleansing might also help relax him after his harrowing trip. If nothing else, it would at least make him feel human again.

Approaching the encampment, the guards quickly let Beren inside. His face was well known. Even if it was not, the makeup he wore denoted what he was. Few were foolish enough to fake being a Magehunter. Too many of Beren's brethren had short tempers. Such fakery would be met violently and brutally. Few would stand against that for two good reasons. One reason was that no one liked being fooled. The other was that few dared stand against a Magehunter in combat.

“Ah, Beren!” Enzi said, “Good to see you have returned in one piece.”

Beren chuckled, “My gear took the brunt of the damage. I'm going to be sewing things up forever.”

“Better to sew fabric than to stitch wounds.”

“True enough. I'm going to turn in these heads then head off to the creek to wash up.”

Beren's eyes drifted over the northern part of the encampment as he turned towards the main tent. He immediately paused. The unmistakable electric blue aura of magic flitted along the corner of his eyes. The Magehunter approached the area as Enzi looked at Beren with curiosity. Beren swept the area. Magic had been used there recently. The Agonish man turned back to the Feergrus man.

“Did we get any new magic users recently?” Beren asked.

Enzi shrugged, “A Ravaleian came to talk with the general. I do not know if he uses any kind of magic.”

“Someone has been weaving some spells around here.”

“That probably is not good. We have had enough problems with the Ravaleians after the whole attempted coup debacle. If he is running around casting magic on things, I doubt that will go over well.”

“Then I will go have a chat with him,” Beren stated.

The Magehunter headed off to speak with Jenner and Enzi tagged along. He was curious as to what the newcomer was really up to. Jenner was busy mingling with some of the Nuvroci soldiers. Most of them were ignoring the Ravaleian. He was tolerated, but not yet accepted. The sting of betrayal faded slowly, if ever at all. Jenner looked over at Beren and Enzi as they approached. He gave a particularly wary eye towards Beren. The Magehunter noted that as a suspicious action.

“Ah, a new face,” Jenner smiled, “You must be Beren Gendar. I am Jenner Gann, gearwork master of Ravalei.”

“Then you have have magic power,” Beren said, “Those golems require enchantment.”

“Yes,” Jenner replied, “Will that be a problem?”

“I'm not too worried, but I do wonder what kind of spells you have been casting.”

“I have not woven any spells since I was last in Calal.”

It was certainly true that Beren could not see any trace of a magical aura on the Ravaleian. A Magehunter could only see the magic of a spell, however. They could not see the magic inside a person. Unless the mage wove a spell on themselves it was hard to tell much about their power. However, Beren had other skills. As long as he was calm, he could usually tell if someone was telling the truth or lying. Jenner seemed to be speaking the truth. That meant only one thing, there was another caster around and they had not announced themselves.

4Sep/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0062

Voltagh trudged through the goblinoid camp, “A bit of breathing room now.”

Ranum nodded, “Indeed. Certainly a lot less orcs.”

The massive orc general snorted, “They were the weakest of us. If any survive, they can come back. They are only to harass the humans and shave off their numbers.”

“Yes, I have seen the plans for the main assault to come. I have seen their new weapon.”

“Is it not glorious?”

“It is not glorious at all,” Ranum stated, “It is a deadly and capable creature, but it is not enough. The power they claim for it is vastly overstated. The high hopes for it winning the war will only lead us to overextend ourselves. We would certainly bring great harm to the humans, but we would awaken their true ire before we are strong enough to resist it. Once the dragon is dead, they will decide we are too dangerous to live.”

“Admittedly I am surprised the humans have not taken the opportunity to simply wipe us out. I have thought them weak.”

“They are weak. Like any animal that is backed into a corner, though, they can become extremely dangerous.”

“Hmm. That is something I had not considered.”

“Yes. Too many are blinded by the small possibility of winning they are willing to throw away everything.”

“The thought of finally returning to our rightful rule is tempting.”

Ranum sighed, “I have a plan to finally defeat the humans but it will take time and effort.”

“I may not like you or your kind, Ranum,” Voltagh growled, “But I know you are smart and want us to win. Tell me of your plan.”

“The humans have several advantages over us at the moment. Their access to resources is one of the biggest. We need a way to equalize our position. I found a way. However, to eventually pull off this plan we will need soldiers that survive this war.”

“Does your pet hobgoblin figure into this plan?”

“Of course,” Ranum replied, “I needed someone to train in the proper use of a true secret weapon. A goblin would be too small. An orc too impulsive. A bugbear too large. Only a hobgoblin would do. So I have made sure that from birth he has been given the best training. I taught him much of battle strategy myself.”

“I despise those hobgoblins and the way they act superior.”

“Yes,” Ranum sighed, “I have little patience for most of them as well. Navras I have tried to make the perfect goblinoid for the job. He may be a hobgoblin, but he sees the use of each of our breeds. Already my goblins are hard at work uncovering the artifacts we need to finish off the humans. We will need to survive this war with as many goblinoids as we can muster. Then we will need to rebuild what we have lost. Only this time we will be stronger. I will need your support when this foolish plan ends to oust the fools that started it.”

“Their failure will be their deaths, that much I can guarantee.”

“I also need to keep you from sending out your best soldiers. We have done enough damage to the humans. Let them think we are spent. I would rather not corner them.”

“I will see what I can do about that. If things look as dire as you say, there will be no reason to spend my best orcs against the humans yet. I would rather use them when we have a real chance at success.”

“That time will come,” Ranum smiled toothily, “The humans will not be expecting our line of attack. When Navras finally leads the goblinoids out of this fetid swamp, he will take all of us. He will be an unstoppable force. It will be glorious.”

“Now that sounds like a hobgoblin I would actually follow,” Voltagh replied.

***

The soldier stood solemnly over the graves. North of the base camp sat the graveyard for the soldiers who had fallen on the northern front. The graveyard had grown considerably with the last battle. The wounded were numerous as well. Lunaris had a cracked rib. She wasn't going to be doing any more fighting for a while. She was heading back into Nuvroc with several other soldiers. It was the soldiers who were hurt too bad to fight. Lunaris was young and would heal with care. Some of the others had taken far more severe wounds.

They would travel first to the small Nuvroci mining town of Brixia, where most would stay until they recovered enough for further travel. Lunaris would eventually need to return to the capital of Nuvroc, Cephas. The rangers had said she would get a new mentor there. She would likely be assigned to patrolling with the mentor at Nuvroc's southern border. Enzi hoped the best for her. She had changed significantly from her careless days. Few of the original warriors that Enzi had grown to know remained.

Medeus Tarim remained, staying close to General Cassius Tessium. The two Nuvroci soldiers had become friends. Medeus still worked to prove that he was free of the influence of an evil artifact that had claimed his mind, but he had shown no signs of regression since the foul knife had been destroyed. Beren Gendar also remained, although he was often on the hunt. The Tarvoni that were aiding the goblinoids had learned to keep themselves out of harm's way. The Agonish Magehunters had defeated many of the evil magic users and Beren had contributed significantly to that number.

Cleaning up the base encampment after the horde of orcs had not been easy. It was always difficult to see those you knew or fought beside when they were laying slain upon the cold, hard ground. The orcs were brutal. Cleaving and jagged blades made terrible wounds. Undisciplined strikes left few clean kills. The wounded had often been maimed. The dead had often died a slow and agonizing death. It had not been a pretty fight. Yet the humans had won. The orc horde had been slaughtered.

The thing that worried Enzi was that the orcs had fought to the death. They had shown no regard for their lives. It had been a reckless and wild assault. Of the goblinoid races, orcs had the reputation for brutality. These orcs had not shown even the slightest fear of death. Such fervor made for a deadly foe. It could also cause unpredictability. It made Enzi think about the future battles. The plans of the goblinoids were hard to fathom. He wondered what they would do next.

He knew of the secret weapon of the goblinoids. It was a drake, raised from an egg stolen from the lizardfolk in the Marsh of Vashim. It might not yet be as powerful as a fully grown adult dragon, but it would still be far beyond the power of any single person. It would likely even lay waste to entire armies. Bringing such a monster down would require other monsters. Luckily Enzi had recruited monsters for his Irregulars. The gorgon, minotaur, and vodyanoi were the last of their kind. The lycanthropes and Halz were rare and reclusive.

Enzi's Irregulars were a unique blend of talents. Enzi suspected that if they could not stop the drake then it would cause damage beyond reckoning before the young dragon was finally stopped. It would mean a war unlike any others. The humans would want revenge for the devastation. They had little love for the goblinoids. Revenge would give them a reason to hunt them down and slaughter every last one of them. The armies of the northern countries would win, but not without severe losses.

To retain the balance of the nations, Enzi needed to stop the drake. To save the lives of countless humans, as well as rescuing the goblinoids from extinction, Enzi had to slay the dragon. Most of all, only in stopping the mighty winged lizard would the plans of conquest by Feergrus be stopped. Enzi might still love his country and the people in it, but he no longer loved the government. The treacherous Devis Lane had seen to that. Enzi knew he could not allow Devis to unleash whatever evil plan he had in store upon the world of Doulairen.

As the funeral service for the fallen soldiers ended, General Cassius Tessium approached Enzi. The general had often gone to the Feergrus man for advice. The death of so many men had begun to wear on Cassius. He was a young man and the role of general had fallen upon him when the previous general had been slain. Yet already responsibility had begun to age the Nuvroci man. His skin was already rough tanks to the treatments and steel plates that had made him one of the Steel Warriors. The wrinkles would only make him look more grizzled.

“This attack was meant to do little more than harass us I expect,” Cassius stated.

Enzi nodded, “If they play a war of attrition, they will lose in the end. I see little strategy in this.”

“They have weakened the north, but we are still far stronger than where we once were. If we gain any other reinforcements, I expect that the north will be able to fend off almost any attack unless they throw all their forces here.”

Enzi's eyes widened, “They are going to make the north their target to draw reinforcements here. Then the final push will be south. Not the most brilliant of plans, but effective in its simplicity.”

“I will try to make sure that further Nuvroci reinforcements are sent south. If you are sure the final strike will be there, we will need as many soldiers there as possible to end it quickly and efficiently.”

Enzi nodded. This small group could hold the north. Even without the aid of Ravalei. The influence of the Rava Coast Trading Company had brought great trouble to the encampment. If Ravalei did eventually send more troops to the northern front, hopefully the Storm Brigade would dissuade them from trying to overthrow the leadership of General Cassius Tessium.

***

The Tarvoni that strode through the Goblinoid Lands did not wear the symbol of the Abyss Cult. His dirty blonde hair was darker than most Tarvoni and he wore leather armor instead of robes. There was no visible symbol of a cult anywhere, but he was heavily armed. Another Tarvoni came out to greet him. That Tarvoni did wear robes, and the spiral symbol of the Abyss Cult was prominent on them.

“I am Gree Vanier,” the robed Tarvoni said.

“What's the job?” the armored Tarvoni asked brusquely.

“A Magehunter. He works out of the northern front.”

“Interesting. You are talking about this Beren Gendar then. Two thousand gold coins.”

Gree nodded, “If you can do it, the gold is yours.”

The armored man turned and began walking north, “I will return with his head.”

Gree Vanier watched the armored man walk away. It was a Tarvoni from the Shadow Cult. They were professional assassins. If anyone could deal with the threat of a Magehunter, it was an assassin. The assassins in Ravalei had turned down the request by the Abyss Cult to eliminate the magehunter threat. Luckily, there were other options. The Shadow Cult were rarely seen, but they were professionals. They were experts with blades. Many were also mages.

The mages of the Shadow Cult might not be the most powerful among the Tarvoni, but that would be an advantage against a Magehunter. Beren Gendar had hurt the Tarvoni effort. The other Magehunters had not helped, but Beren was getting too close. Gree did not wish to have a Magehunter coming for his head. Two thousand gold coins was a considerable sum, but if it helped win the war than it was entirely worth it. Once Beren Gendar was dead, Gree could worry about the other Magehunters. They had not been as effective, hopefully they would be cheaper to eliminate.

28Aug/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0061

Kava rolled easily beneath the mighty blade, “Is that all you got?'

Aldebaran grumbled. The minotaur's spars with the much smaller vodyanoi had grown to the point where the two had trouble winning a battle. Kava was too fast to hit. The minotaur had learned how to avoid the smaller and more nimble foe. They had reached a point where neither could learn more from the other until they figured out a new trick.

“I do not see you making a strike,” the minotaur finally growled.

Kava snorted, “We could play for real. Pulling blows makes this harder for both of us.”

“You just want to see blood.”

“No, no no. I want to see other people's blood,” the vodyanoi croaked, “I've seen enough of my own. I want the new and different experiences.”

The two continued to spar as a giant wolf padded by. It was the lycanthrope Mayitso. The jagged scar on the left side of his head showed where the mighty creature had lost an eye. The fur would never entirely heal there, it was a mark he would carry for the rest of his life. He had learned to compensate for its loss, although it was a permanent blow to his senses. He had to rely on his other senses much more. Luckily, his sense of smell and hearing were exceptionally sharp.

He sniffed the air. Nothing caught his attention. He trotted over towards Eurysa. The gorgon had curled her tail around a barrel. She was using it as a seat while she was making sure her bow and arrows were in good condition. Mayitso curled up beside her, keeping his ears listening for danger. Eurysa looked down at the lycanthrope and sighed.

“One more day of rest,” Eurysa hissed, “This quiet can not last forever. I can feel the tension growing. I know you do as well. You prowl more often now.”

Mayitso let out as soft whine.

“Yes, I think even the patience of Enzi and Ritter are being tested,” Eurysa said as her green eyes glistened, “I know that staying sedentary is getting to me.”

Her eyes narrowed with vertical pupils like a serpent. She moved with a flash and launched an arrow. She had struck the target dummy exactly where she had wanted. The dwarf that sat not far away did not even notice. He was busy with his own equipment maintenance. Ritter's equipment had taken quite a beating since he left his home in the mountains. He was no blacksmith, but he did what he could. The Halz had made his equipment well, all he needed to do was take care of it.

Finished with needed repairs, Ritter began to put his armor on. While he did, Enzi stepped out of a nearby tent. The Feergrus man had been chatting with the general again. Enzi looked to be in a good mood. The quiet appealed to him, although he knew it could not last. Enzi began to make his rounds to chat with his Irregulars. He started with the one that was physically closest to him, the dwarf named Ritter.

“Anything to report?” Enzi asked.

“Not much,” the Halz replied, “We have had a few cases of sponge foot.”

“It is the damp atmosphere. Most Nuvroci are used to a drier clime. They should change out their footwear more often and try to keep their feet dry.”

Ritter nodded and headed off to talk to the Nuvroci. They had a great deal of trust in the Halz. Tales of the dwarves and their engineering skills were rife throughout Nuvroc. Occasionally one of the Halz would come down from the mountain and into the human lands. Even so, it was rare for anyone to have met a dwarf, even in Nuvroc. His presence with the Irregulars had greatly helped the mercenaries. The Nuvroci were much friendlier to the monsters of the team than most thanks to their trust in the Halz.

Enzi stroke up to Eurysa and Mayitso, “Scouts have noticed odd things in the swamp. I think the wait may be over. It is hard to say what is coming. Be prepared.”

“I am always prepared,” Eurysa hissed, the snakes on her head moving about.

Mayitso made no noise, but his ears swiveled to listen to the sounds of the forest. For the moment there was little more than the chatter of the birds and the rustling of the leaves. The expectation of coming violence had at first increased tensions inside the encampment. Now that there was news of the scouts sighting signs of the enemy, the mood had lightened. It was no longer a mystery as to when the goblinoids would attack. The scouts would warn the base camp, then the battle would happen.

When things became clear like that, things felt more predictable and under control. It was all an illusion, but it did not matter if it aided morale. Morale itself was nothing more than an illusion. People's emotions were important in war. The Feergrus knew this well, their religion was well trained on feelings. Enzi had learned a lot about the psychology of war in the temples of Chasar. A soldier with hope and drive fought much harder than one who was disillusioned.

Aldebaran and Kava had both taken a seat to rest after their spar. Enzi was impressed with how well Kava had adapted to the loss of her right arm. The prosthetic she wore was quite simple and deadly at the same time. It allowed her to continue using that arm in combat. It was not useful for much more than that, however. Still, it was difficult to disarm her now, as that prosthetic axe was strapped onto the stump of her arm. Kava poured water over her head as she sat.

Kava was amphibious. It also meant she needed more water than most to survive. She kept herself moist as much as possible. The nearby Siren Swamp was similar to her own home far to the south. The vodyanoi hailed from the Marsh of Vashim. That swamp should have been much cooler, as it was so far south. Volcanic activity heated Vashim. This filled the Marsh of Vashim with several unusual dangers, like the fumaroles that spewed heated gasses. The smell of sulfur was often thick in the air. It was an unpleasant place for outsiders.

“Rest up you two,” Enzi said, “I suspect the coming fight will be a large one.”

“Excellent,” Kava croaked, “I have not gotten to kill nearly enough things lately.”

Aldebaran snorted at the smaller creature's blood-lust. He had enough trouble handling his own rage. His life had been a hard one, though no worse that the other monsters of the Irregulars. He had led a life of destruction and now sought to lead a life where he was helpful. His indiscriminate rage against any and all humans had caused trouble in the lives of many innocents. He might not admit it out loud, but the opportunity to vent his anger on some goblinoids was very appealing.

The Nuvroci scouts returned that evening with little new information. Animal patterns suggested that trouble was coming from the Goblinoids Lands. It was impossible to know how soon until the enemy force itself was spotted. The human encampment was prepared for battle. The only known resource they were missing was Beren Gendar. The Magehunter from Agon was on the hunt for the Tarvoni that had allied themselves with the goblinoids.

The dusk settled in around the camp as the light from Feras was hidden by the mountains to the east. Sticking close to the west side of the Nuvro Range meant that darkness came early. This was of great advantage to the goblinoids. Their eyesight in the dark was far greater than any human. The goblinoids had enormous eyes, but also had no nose. They breathed through their mouths and had a limited sense of smell. Considering the foul places they lived, this was also of great advantage to them.

As darkness crept across the land, a massive force of orcs began their charge northwards once again. They had no illusion of stealth. They knew the humans would expect them. It did not matter to them. They were strong in number. They planned to swarm the human encampment. They made their way through the Halcyon Wood. The dry ground was a relief to them, helping their speed. They may have lived long near the swamps, but the orcs were no faster in marshy ground than a human.

The burly goblinoids saw the lights of the human encampment with three hours to spare before dawn. The base camp that the humans had built was too large and active to hide from prying eyes. It might have once survived with camouflage, but it never would again. The orcs planned to make sure that naught would be left of it but debris. The humans had cleared part of the forest to make sure no one could make their way to the encampment by stealth. The orc horde stopped near the edge to rest and prepare for the battle.

The morning would come soon enough, but the orcs wanted to recover their stamina before they attacked. A short rest would be more than enough for them to catch their breath. It did not take long for the excitement to build. The orcs planned to crush the humans in the north once and for all. Most of the orcs would die, but they would ensure the survival of their race in the future. Plus they would get to kill humans. These were the thoughts that motivated the orcs. Survival and revenge were powerful motivators indeed.

The orcs put one foot in front of another. Then they did it again. Faster and faster. The charge had begun. As the humans spotted them the orcs screamed out. Their bloodcurdling roars were sure to wake any that the warnings of the human guards did not. It did not matter to the orcs. They came like an unrelenting wave to crash upon the walls of the base camp. Arrows and bolts flew as the Nuvroci rangers manned the walls. The young Lunaris stood on the walls.

The teen girl took a deep breath. She loosed her arrow. An orc fell. She nocked the next projectile. Her form with the bow had been sharpened with time and experience. Each arrow seemed to find its mark. It was not enough. There were too many orcs. Each orc was a mass of muscle. Some had a few rare patches of mangy fur, but they were mostly hairless. They surged up over the walls. Lunaris thought it was over as an orc vaulted over the edge of the wall towards her.

Time seemed to slow for her. There was nowhere to go, she merely unleashed her last arrow at her foe. It pierced the bare chest of the orc. He was dead, but that did not stop his momentum. He collided with Lunaris and the two fell from the wall to the inside of the encampment. The ground rushed up to meet the teen girl. The weight of the orc on top of her did not help her to absorb the impact. As her head struck the ground, all she knew was darkness.

Dead rangers fell beside her and the vicious weapons of the orcs cut down the defenders on the walls. A line of Nuvroci soldiers rushed to the battle. The Storm Brigade was impressive. They quickly asserted control of the battle. Nuvroc's thirty-seventh legion was trained for war. The orcs had energy for the beginning of the surge, but as time passed they quickly tired. The long run to the north had taken its toll. As the adrenaline wore off, the Nuvroci made gains.

These orcs were undisciplined warriors. Their savagery had given them initiative in the battle, but their gains were slowly being taken back. The archers had fallen back behind the infantry. The arrows cut deep into the back ranks of the orcs. Six thousand stalwart men of Nuvroc stood against nearly twenty thousand orcs that night just before dawn. One third of the Storm Brigade did not live to see the rising of the sun. The orcs, however, had been crushed.

General Cassius Tessium surveyed the scene as dawn's light illuminated the camp, “How did our scouts miss this many orcs?”