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Merry Christmas.

Legacy of Valshannar – Chapter 5

Broken Alliance

"Marcus, do you have a casualty report?"

"Quite a few, Master Roy," Marcus replied, dismounting from his horse. "Four dead and seven wounded, though the injured are being tended by Sister Ellen. They appear to be on their way to recovery."

"Eleven casualties is too high, Marcus," Roy answered. "We outnumbered the Bern garrison two to one, yet they still unhorsed a tenth of our riders."

"Master Roy, the enemy we faced today was no ordinary group of soldiers," Marcus said. "Today, we fought the cream of Elibe's military, the Bern infantry. It can only be expected that resistance was more than stout."

"That is true," Roy admitted, "but our losses are unacceptable. We vanquished a small portion of the Bern army here, but we cannot sustain such losses in the long run. If we lost a tenth of our forces when battling against an opposing force half our size, how many more would fall should we duel against a numerically superior foe?"

The old knight looked thoughtful. "If that were the case, Master Roy, our forces must rely on superior tactics to overcome the enemy."

Roy grimaced. "I fear we are in trouble then. I have a decent grasp of the rudimentary basics, but I am no master tactician when it comes to planning battles. Most of the skirmishes in and around Pherae were settled thanks to the Order's superior horsemanship and fighting skills."

Master Roy is more of a battlefield commander who personally leads the charge. The idea of sitting behind in a tent plotting out the entire battle is repulsive to his nature. Marcus thought as the pair walked towards the Araphen throne room. Then again, should it be considered strange that he exhibits the stubbornness and forwardness of Lord Hector? After all, Lord Hector was Lord Eliwood's greatest friend.

"I wish I paid more attention to Cecilia's lectures on tactics rather than spending the majority of my time practicing swordsmanship." Roy shook his head.

"Rest assured that this old knight sleeps more soundly in his bed knowing that you can defend yourself."

Roy grinned. "I don't think a single sword will decide the fate of Elibe, Marcus. I was wondering if you could contribute a little aid in the tactical department."

"I fear I am too inept for that task," Marcus said. "If he were still alive, Bern would never dare to declare war against the rest of Elibe. Mark would have scattered the hosts of Bern with a flick of his hand. It was thanks to his genius that Lord Eliwood survived the quest from twenty years ago."

"The Campaign of Fire actually happened?" Roy looked incredulous. "I thought they were only fairy tales that Father created and that dragons were mere legends from the Scouring."

"Oh no, the dragons were quite real. In fact…"

"They exist today."

Roy and Marcus both stopped short at the interruption. The two turned to see a soldier click his heels at attention and offer a stiff salute.

"Sergeant Bassinger, Santaruz 2nd Company, begging your pardon for the interruption, Lord Roy."

"At ease, sergeant," Roy nodded in greeting. "What were you referring to when you mentioned that dragons exist today?"

The sergeant relaxed into a stance of parade rest. A sudden flicker of pain and fear flashed through the soldier's green eyes, but he suppressed the emotions as well as the tears threatening to fall from his eyes.

"Lord Roy, the dragons of legend were involved in the sack of Araphen." The sergeant chewed on his mustache as he watched Marcus' eyes bulge out in shock. "I know this is hard to believe, sir, but every Lycian soldier garrisoned at Araphen during the siege will affirm my story. Two dragons smashed through the wall and shattered our lines. I can say with pride that the Santaruz 2nd Company will stand against any human army on the face of Elibe, sir, but my company could not stand their ground against the dragons."

"It is not your fault, soldier," Roy said, "few men living can…"

"It is our fault, Lord Roy!" The soldier's voice cracked. "Marquess Santaruz was the only one, the only one, who rose to the occasion. When the marquess, the marquess, he… He was utterly destroyed by the beast. The men broke ranks and fled afterwards, leaving Lord Hector to face the creatures alone."

Roy started. "Where is Lord Hector now?"

"I do not know for certain, Lord Roy." Sergeant Bassinger replied, "I heard that Lord Hector triumphed over the dragon, but was taken to see the King of Bern in the throne room."

Roy and Marcus did not wait to hear more. The two took off for the Araphen throne room immediately, taking the stairs three steps at a time in their haste. Several soldiers on guard saluted the young lord and aging general, though they received no reply.

"Marcus, why didn't anyone check the throne room when we swept the castle for surviving hostiles?"

"Mostly likely out of respect for the recently departed Marquess Araphen," Marcus surmised. "I hear that he endured his last moments with dignity."

"As much dignity as can be preserved by death, I suppose," Roy said bitterly. The young lord still had trouble understanding the motives behind Marquess Lancel and Marquess Dolon's betrayal. Whereas Eliwood was a lord seasoned by intrigue and accustomed to treachery, his son is still a youth learning the ropes of manhood. Marcus could only wonder when his young charge would lose that aura of naïveté around him.

At the top of the stairs, Roy burst through the doors of the throne room with Marcus scarcely a foot behind him. The scene that greeted their eyes bore evidence of combat, with blood soaked through Marquess Lancel's prized Etrurian rugs. A chipped silver ax lay abandoned on the ground not two feet from the dried blood. However, no body, living or dead, could be seen anywhere in the entire room.

"Where is Lord Hector?" Roy asked, confused by the sight.

"Master Roy, look here."

Roy turned his eyes towards Marcus' pointing hand. From the dried blood, a trail of crimson liquid made a path steadily towards the throne, disappearing near the steps.

"Odd, someone must have moved the body somehow," Marcus said. "However, this makes no sense. If the Bern soldiers were to dispose of Lord Hector, they should have dragged the corpse away from the corpse and out of the throne room. Why in the gods' name would they drag the body towards the throne?"

"Simple, because no Bern soldier touched Lord Hector's remains," a voice sounded from behind the throne.

Marcus's hand was instantly on his sword hilt. Half drawing the blade, the old knight roared out a challenge. "Who goes there? Show yourself!"

"At ease, old friend," a middle-aged knight clad in green armor revealed himself from his hiding place behind the throne. "You sure forget old comrades quickly."

Marcus blinked in surprise. Although it was twenty years since they last waged war together, the resemblance was unmistakable. "By the gods, is that you, Sain?"

The Green Lance of Caelin nodded while clutching his right arm. "Indeed it is, more or less worse for the wear. I daresay you lot took your time getting here, with Araphen fallen as it is."

"Pherae was attacked by brigands from the Bern Mountains," Marcus answered. "Master Roy quelled the assault as quickly as possible before rushing here with all haste."

"Master Roy?" Sain asked before focusing his attention on the red-haired youth. "Ah, you mean the son of Lord Eliwood. Feh, I should have guessed by the color of his hair. No other young noble in all of Lycia has hair like Lord Eliwood."

Evidently impatient with the exchange, Roy asked. "Where is Lord Hector?"

"Lord Hector's body lies behind the throne in a secret passageway," Sain answered. "Simply pull on the torch holder on the pillar to the left of the throne. The few remaining knights I have with me are standing vigil over the bodies of Lord Hector and Sir Pandarus. I already told them that Lycia has regained the castle, so you should have little difficulty paying your respects, milord."

"I see. Thank you, Sir Sain." Roy nodded briefly in the knight's direction before moving towards the secret passageway.

Marcus's eyes briefly followed Roy's movements before turning back to Sain. "Sain, how did you know there was a secret passageway behind the throne?"

"Ah, that I fear, is a professional secret. Given our longtime comradeship, however, I will enlighten you briefly," Sain grinned slightly. "The exact location and details were furnished by Rath, one-time Captain of the Araphen Guard. Those who partook in Lady Lyndis's return from exile would know of the brief skirmish at Araphen. A certain half-brother of the reigning marquess had taken control of the castle in a coup, but Lyndis's Legions entered the castle via the secret passageway you see behind the throne. We were able to quell the coup in this manner with minimum losses."

"I see," Marcus nodded. "That was during Sir Mark's time, I believe?"

"Yes," Sain said, "fortunately I was one of the few who entered the castle through this entrance that day. When the fall of Araphen was imminent and most of my command slain, I retreated into the castle in hopes of preserving our honorable dead from those Bern jackals. It was in that hiding place that I heard of the duel between Lord Hector and King Zephiel."

Marcus grimaced. "I infer from the blood trail that Lord Hector lost."

"Evidently," Sain sighed. "The battle was over in a matter of moments. I didn't witness the duel, merely heard the crash of metal against metal. I assume that King Zephiel brought one of the Divine Weapons into the duel. Lord Hector has long since returned Armads. He didn't stand a chance."

"At least Lord Hector met his end with honor."

"That he did."

However, the prevailing thought on both their minds was not regarding Hector of Ostia. The Lycian elite were annihilated at the siege of Araphen. Who could reassemble the army in time to protect Ostia from the advancing Bern hordes?

"Marcus, come here for a moment," Roy's voice echoed out from the passageway.

Exchanging a glance with Sain, Marcus moved towards the entrance to find an ashen-faced Roy coming into view. The lord's eyes spoke volumes for the young man's distress and despair, but he made a visible effort to iron his features into a more neutral expression.

"With the collapse of Araphen, Ostia must be made aware of the danger," Roy said. "Marcus, please send word to the rescued prisoners. All who consider themselves fit and able to march will accompany us towards Thria. Everyone else will follow at a more leisurely pace until we reach Ostia. Ostia can decommission them afterwards."

"Master Roy, you will not assign a garrison to the castle?" Marcus asked.

"There is no purpose for a garrison here. If a Bern brigade returns, the garrison will be slaughtered to a man. With most of the lords slain, only a seneschal will be needed to hold Araphen in proxy until a governor is appointed. Lycia has need of every sword in the future, so the other prisoners are better off resting in their homes."

"As you wish, Master Roy," Marcus nodded in obedience. "I will inform the column to prepare for departure immediately."

Sain coughed, "I hope you have space for a few extra riders, because I'll be marching with you."

Roy smiled thinly. "We'll be glad to have you wish us, Sir Sain."

Now, supposedly, Milton is supposed to be standing right here on watch duty. So where the heck is he? Oujay thought as he surveyed the area around him. The busy intersection between Market Avenue and 13th Street filled with pedestrians and teamsters driving their wagons, but was conspicuously missing a guard.

"Milton, where are you?"

Milton, a spearman assigned to the 23rd Knight Squad, quickly tossed the wine bottle he was holding into the nearby bushes when he heard that shout. Stepping out of the alleyway where he was taking a break, the young knight-in-training caught sight of the blue-haired swordsman standing near the sentry station.

"Ah, there you are, Milton," Oujay smiled. "I couldn't seem to find you along the patrol route. I must have missed you in the crowds."

"Well, I'm just lucky that you were the one sent to find me and not Captain Wendy," Milton shuddered. "If Captain found out I wasn't in my designated area, she would have lectured me until my ears fell off."

"Ha, that may very well be the case," Oujay agreed. "Anyways, I came to inform you that your shift is over. I suggest that you return to the castle quickly and grab your paycheck. With Ostia in the current state, even our wages seem to be on a first come, first serve basis."

"Are you serious? Is the treasury that sorely pressed?"

"Whether the treasury is in dire situation or not is open for debate," Oujay answered. "Many of the knights and trainees garrisoned in Ostia are complaining that this is Leygance's ploy to lure them into his fold. It's rumored that most of the troops under his command always have their pay lined up and ready for delivery while others have to beg and threaten for their wages. Others might not be so lucky, seeing how the 10th Knight Squad hasn't been paid for two months."

"Yeah, I've heard them complaining in the barracks too," Milton shook his head. "Well, I'm off. If I let my money sit there any longer, someone else might help themselves to it."

"That's true, though I'd wish you would go a little easier on the wine," Oujay observed. "Your wallet seems to be full on payday, then strangely empty the next."

Milton feigned an injured look. "Oujay, you've known me for long enough. I told you I gave up drinking a while ago. Speaking of empty wallets, isn't yours in a similar situation?"

"Guilty as charged," Oujay grinned. "However, I have a legitimate excuse. My family depends on my income to make ends meet. Even with my brothers working, it takes our combined earnings to make the household function. What's your excuse?"

"Uh…" Milton's grin faltered, "I just remembered an errand I needed to get to before heading home. I'll see you later." The spearman quickly ducked behind a slow-moving caravan and was lost to sight.

Oujay quirked an eyebrow at Milton's hasty retreat. "Hm… I smell something fishy…"

"Indeed you should."

Oujay blinked in surprise. Turning around, he found a purple haired man wearing a fashionable brown cloak holding a wine bottle in his hand. The man was busy inspecting the label on the bottle before he redirected his attention back on Oujay.

"A gullible young man like you should naturally be curious when others are evasive towards your questions," the man said. "After all, are not all youngsters inquisitive by nature?"

Oujay cocked his head to one side in confusion. "I'm afraid I do not follow you, good sir. What do you mean that I'm gullible?"

"Well, you certainly believe everything that yonder spearman told you. The intoxicating smell of wine is simply too much for his willpower. I witnessed him tossing this bottle," the man shook the bottle in his hand to show half the contents swishing around, "into the bushes before hurrying out of the alleyway. I presume he concocted a flurry of lies to hide his indiscretion?"

Oujay colored. "Actually, he claimed that he gave up drinking a while ago."

"See, what did I tell you? Gullible as you are, he only needed one line to convince you of his innocence." The man took a long swig from the bottle before corking it and smacking his lips. A slim trickle of wine escaped his lips and made its way down into his purple goatee. "Ah, this is a fine merlot from Worde. It would be such a pity to throw this away merely to uphold his image, do you not think so?"

"Well, I certainly appreciate that you are taking your valuable time to point out my lapse in judgment," Oujay avoided the question, "but is there anything I can help you with?"

"Actually, young man, there is one thing I wish to learn from you. Do you happen to know the location of Sir Barth of the Steel Tower? I have some news he would be most interested in."

"Oh, Sir Barth is currently at the Buck's Horn in the 2nd District," Oujay answered.

"Right, thanks lad. I'll be on my way now," the man took another swig from the bottle. "And be wary of liars these days!"

Thankful to be free of the man's presence at last, Oujay quickly turned around and left in the opposite direction. Unfortunately for the young mercenary, someone latched onto his shoulder before he moved three steps.

"The fact is, young man, I haven't been in Ostia for a while, so I do not recall my way around here. Could you please direct me to the Buck's Horn?"

Oh well, I need to see Wendy regarding our next assignment anyways; might as well take him along. Oujay turned and nodded, "I'll be glad to. The 2nd District is in this direction."

Ten minutes and quite a few turns later, Oujay led his companion before the rather crowded Buck's Horn. Ever since Barth and Zealot mutually pledged to defend Ostia, many soldiers of Ostia viewed the Buck's Horn as an unofficial headquarters for anti-Leygance members. Consequently, with Barth frequenting the tavern to discuss Ostia's security with Zealot, many knights of the Steel Tower also visited the establishment for their own purposes. With Leygance in full command of the castle itself, those who found the general's policies repulsive naturally looked elsewhere for lodgings.

Pushing open the double-doors that led into the establishment, Oujay glanced around to find Barth. The mohawk-sprouting knight was seated at the back table engaged with Zealot, Treck and Noah in a deep discussion. Satisfied that his search has ended, Oujay turned around to inform his companion of his success, but the man was nowhere to be found. Unbeknownst to Oujay, his companion had already approached Barth's table. Naturally, Barth and his companions were unaware that someone was eavesdropping on their conversation.

"If General Leygance continues to alienate both the upper class and the lower class with his mad schemes, we will not need a foreign invasion to rend the city apart. Ostia is quite capable of falling apart by itself." Barth sighed.

"What do you mean, Sir Barth?" Zealot asked, "Has the general proposed a new ordinance to govern the people?"

"He has done so indirectly," Barth said. "By declaring the original land tax dysfunctional, General Leygance has devised a troublesome income tax in addition to the current land tax. Claiming that the reported numbers were incorrect and much of the levies from the land tax were misrepresented, General Leygance has proposed that every citizen of Ostia pay ten percent of their annual income into the treasury. According to the general, this will alleviate the economical difficulties that Ostia currently faces."

"Which economical difficulties are you alluding to? Is it the lack of money to fund the mercenaries in Leygance's employment?" Noah asked.

"Actually, I think I know the reason," Zealot said. "I heard that many of the poorer districts in Ostia are clamoring that food is unavailable for copper and silver, leaving them out of starve. They are demanding that the price of bread be lowered or the government should pay for free bread distribution. Anything less than that, I fear…"

"…May lead to insurrection in the poor districts," finished Treck.

Noah rolled his eyes. "That was a brilliant scheme; taking money from the rich and using the funds to buy food for the poor. I can see why Leygance has distanced himself from the upper class as well."

"He's trying to keep a foot in either camp; drawing both the upper class and the lower into his fold. Unfortunately, if the general continues his non-action policy, he will end up losing both groups. The people desire action that directly involves their security and prosperity. The general might have been better off alienating one group, but endearing himself to the other."

"The people are becoming desperate," Barth said. "With no news of Araphen or Lord Hector and General Leygance making blunders left and right, the people are looking to themselves for solutions. Much of the populace are arming themselves in preparation for drastic measures. If this continues for much longer, I fear that Ostia may return to the chaotic times of the War of Heirs."

"If General Leygance would allow Lady Lilina to assume the position of head of state, there might be a defuse some of the problems that Ostia is currently facing, but that would not improve the general's own standing." Zealot shook his head. "Truly, he's between a rock and a hard place."

"My, my, quite a thing to say about your commanding officer, don't you agree?"

The four knights all turned to look at the source of the interruption. Oujay's one-time companion merely saluted Barth with the wine bottle before taking another sip.

Noah was on his feet in an instant. "Who are you, one of Leygance's spies?"

"At ease, knight of Ilia," Barth put out a hand to restrain Noah before smirking at the interrupter. "You never do change that habit of yours, do you, Asthor?"

"Which habit do you refer to, the interruption or the drink?"

Barth laughed. "Well, if you put it that way, I suppose you retain both of them. Gentlemen, I give you Ostia's Head of Intelligence, Asthor."

"Well, to be politically correct, I am the Head of Internal Intelligence," Asthor said with a smile. "Matthew is Head of Foreign Intelligence, but given his long period of inactivity and unknown location, I am the only Head of Intelligence serving Ostia presently."

"It is an honor to meet you," Zealot nodded politely.

"Come now, Asthor," Barth boomed, "you could not possibly have come all this way just to say hello, correct? What news do you have?"

Asthor's cheery demeanor chilled instantly as his eyes glanced left and right. "Do you have a private place to talk where the walls do not have ears?"

Barth and Zealot looked at one another. Zealot said, "I have a room on the second floor, we shall not be overheard there. Come, this way."

On the way to the second floor, Zealot flashed a brief hand signal to a gathered group of Ilian knights loitering near the stairway. Recognizing the command, the group of six knights took the stairway first, positioning themselves in the rooms all around Zealot's chamber. The Ilian commander had the foresight to reserve all the rooms on the second floor of the Buck's Horn for his troops. If necessary, Zealot could hold an impromptu field briefing in his room where no intruder could listen into without running into an Ilian knight.

After entering the room, Zealot calmly locked the door. Motioning for Noah to sit with his back against the door, Zealot nodded. "We are secure against eavesdroppers now. What do you need to say?"

Asthor slowly settled down in a chair beside the bed. "I have a few items of catastrophic proportion that I need to discuss. First, I have finished rooting around in Laus. Apparently, Marquess Erik is not content with ruling over a province. He has imperial ambitions for all of Lycia, and is counting on the current invasion to provide him with a golden opportunity of fulfilling his ambitions. The fact that he failed to reinforce Castle Araphen is beyond doubt. Whether he fully complied with Bern is not yet proven."

Barth was aghast. "Do you know how or when Marquess Erik plans to act?"

"I was unable to find any details, though I searched long and hard. Erik has a snake by the name of Paltier who is making my job very difficult," Asthor admitted. "However, I have more. Second, General Leygance is funneling a large sum of money towards an Ostian Tournament of Arms, to be held in the near future. This is, more or less, a tournament exclusively for the knightly class. General Leygance and four others will challenge all comers for six candle marks. A panel of five judges will decide the champion of the day. This has not been confirmed, but I believe the prize is Lady Lilina's hand in marriage."

"What did you say?" Barth turned purple with fury. "How can General Leygance even think of offering Lady Lilina as a prize for barter? Has he no honor?"

"Why would he offer that?" Noah asked. "Someone marrying Lady Lilina would only unseat Leygance's position!"

"Not if Leygance is the one marrying Lady Lilina," Treck observed. "That would legitimize his position and grant him unlimited power over the alliance."

Asthor nodded. "That is exactly what General Leygance is plotting. If he manages to win the day, he will be able to sword-wed Lady Lilina regardless of objection. The legal scruples of the matter will be moot if his many mercenaries stay long enough for the ceremony to conclude. The only reason he hasn't forcibly wed Lady Lilina right now is because the common people will revolt. If he emerges utterly victorious in the tournament, that is an entirely different story altogether. The people need a hero to put their faith in, and the general will easily fit that role if he triumphs against all who oppose him."

"He can be opposed in the tournament and consequently defeated, but I do not think we should stake all our hopes on that," Zealot said.

"I still have some connections with the knights in the castle," Barth said. "I will smuggle in a few trustworthy troops and quietly take Lady Lilina from this accursed setup. Sir Zealot, if you could arrange for an endless line of challengers, I think that would be best."

Zealot nodded. "You seek to keep General Leygance permanently on the tournament field? This would present your infiltration group with the maximum amount of time to act."

"Yes," Barth said. "Once Lady Lilina is safely with the loyal Brothers of the Steel Tower, we can hold out in Ostia until Lord Hector returns to deal with General Leygance."

Asthor shook his head. "Ah, Barth, I am sorry to say that your plan is doomed from the start."

"What do you mean?"

"You can wait for another decade and Lord Hector will not return," Asthor said slowly. "I have already received confirmation from multiple informants around Araphen. Castle Araphen has already fallen, most of the lords slain, and the garrison put into irons."

Barth and Zealot stood up so quickly that their chairs fell backwards. "What did you just say!?"

"Castle Araphen has fallen," Asthor repeated, "and Lord Hector is dead. He was killed by King Zephiel of Bern."

Stunned silence hung over the room like a cloud.

Two squadrons of wyvern riders hurtled through the sky, maintaining a double line formation despite the wind howling in their faces. Their weapons and armor glistening in the afternoon sun, they were beyond any doubt the terror of the skies. Few things in battle were more awe-inspiring than a bloodthirsty wyvern tearing through clouds with dripping fangs, intent on rending flesh. A wrecking ball of steel and flesh, a fully-armored wyvern rider possessed the physical hardiness of a knight in heavy plate mail combined with the blazing speed of the Sacaen nomads. Only a few of the bravest or most foolhardy regiments dared to challenge a full contingent of wyvern riders head on.

At the head of the two squadrons, Narshen was in good spirits. Despite failing to find any of Marquess Lancel's riches at Castle Araphen, Narshen had significantly advanced his plans to conquer Lycia. During his brief meeting with Marquess Erik of Laus, Narshen had successfully cowed the lord into submission with threats of invading Laus itself. Greedy as the man was, Erik was in no position to dictate terms to the Dragon General. After bowing out with ill grace, Erik had promised to hold off on any attempt towards Ostia until Narshen made his attack. In the unlikely attempt that Narshen's division failed and was repulsed, then Erik would be granted his opportunity.

That weasel would be looking for the first opportunity to backstab me, Narshen thought to himself at the head of the formation. Erik has worked too long to yield me the fruits of his labor. His only hope lays in uniting the Lycian states under his banner and raising a new army to challenge my division. Failing that, anything he does would be moot as my division annihilates his troops in battle.

Several candle marks ago, Narshen received favorable reports that the "foraging" had gone well. Indeed, many of the outlying villages around Araphen were sacked and looted. Fuming at his limited manpower, Narshen had instructed his troops to largely target the wealthier farms and merchants. If his division had not suffered so many losses during the siege of Araphen, Narshen might have been able to spare a company of men to round up able-bodied men for sale in the Western Isles. With Etruria preparing for war-time measures, the precious metals provided by the Western Isles were in great demand. As such, the barons and bandits controlling the mines were always in search of more workers, voluntary or otherwise. The potential for profit after mass abductions and sales was enormous in times of war.

The division should have reassembled at Castle Araphen by now, Narshen smirked. Replenished by supplies and reinforcements, it is about time for me to embark on a victory march throughout Lycia. Erik, your chance will never arrive!

"General Narshen, we are within 10 miles of Castle Araphen!" One of the wyvern knights behind Narshen shouted. "Requesting permission to begin the descent?"

"Ah, is it time already?" Narshen laughed. "Permission granted!"

The squadrons knew better than to question Narshen's moods, however fickle they were. The Dragon General was known to switch from fury to joy at random intervals, and no one wanted to be on the receiving end of his mood swings. Then again, though Narshen was wont to keep a portion of the wealth for himself, he freely distributed the remainder between his troops. By enriching his followers, Narshen did create a fiercely loyal and competent core of hardened warriors. On the other hand, their loyalty was dependant on the fact that Narshen continued to win his battles.

The wyvern riders looped lazily out of the clouds and descended towards the earth. Off in the distance, Castle Araphen could be seen towering over the nearby countryside. That is, a Castle Araphen conspicuously lacking the crimson banners of Bern.

"Sir, Castle Araphen appears to devoid of our division!"

"What are you talking about?" Narshen said irritably, his previous good cheer evaporating. "Slater and his men should have finished their task by now. So where the hell are they?"

"General Narshen," another wyvern rider spoke up, "there appears to be a large detachment of friendly soldiers encamped several miles to the east. I believe they are flying your division banner."

"By the gods, which idiot ordered them to move there?" Narshen raged, "Make haste, men! I am going to have a few choice words with Slater!"

Tugging hard on the reins, Narshen ordered his wyvern into a steep dive. Screeching, the wyvern immediately plunged downwards toward the camp. Behind Narshen, his escort struggled to follow their leader's reckless movements. The formation disintegrated into a mob of flapping wings and muttered oaths as the squadrons tried in vain to keep up with the general.

Landing in a cloud of dust, Narshen leapt from the saddle and removed his war helm. With a contemptuous flick, he tossed the helmet backwards, striking a passing stable hand in the head. Hearing the helmet fall to the ground, Narshen turned slowly around and leveled a stare at the stable boy. The boy's eyes widened in fear before he dived on the helm and carefully began polishing the dust from the helmet. Satisfied that the equipment was being taken care of, Narshen looked elsewhere.

"Bring that to my tent after you are done," Narshen said. "Someone find me the disciplinary officer!"

"I am here, general!" A tall, gaunt man in armor strode forward.

"For his punishment," Narshen pointed at the boy, "he is to polish my helmet two times a day, once at dawn and again at dusk. In addition, I think a dozen lashes will do."

The officer, long accustomed to Narshen's habit of blaming others, merely shrugged. "The sentence will be carried out to the letter, general. Though might I be so bold as to ask what crime the boy committed?"

"What crime you ask?" Narshen thundered, "For his negligence! Every man in this division should be light on his toes and ready to obey any order, react to any change in his environment. He was discomfited by a mere helmet! Preposterous!" Without waiting for the officer's reply, Narshen stormed off for his private tent.

The disciplinary officer looked slightly apologetic. "Sorry lad, I'm just following orders. It's plain tough luck to run into the general during one of his moods. Don't hold this against me." The officer signaled for two men to take the stable boy away.

Narshen's rage did not diminish as he neared the center of the camp. Every soldier who caught sight of the general immediately snapped to attention and saluted, praying that they wouldn't be singled out for punishment. As Narshen approached, every man scrambled out of his way and kept their gaze forward, not even daring to look the enraged general in the eye.

Stopping in front of his command tent, Narshen turned around slowly to survey the assembled soldiers in front of him. All of them kept their faces blank, trying to avoid attracting Narshen's attention and subsequent fury. Not finding a target to punish, Narshen veritably exploded.

"How is it, that I return from a mission of vital importance to our campaign, that I find the entire camp moved?" Narshen roared, "Not only that, my orders were countermanded, the lot of you are not ready to depart, and where the hell is Slater!?"

Silence greeted the Dragon General, as no one wished to reveal the information for fear of Narshen cutting them down on the spot. Narshen, quite riled up already, was ready to deliver another oath when a voice drifted out of his tent.

"My, my, you shouldn't rail on your own soldiers so, General Narshen. After all, I was the one who overrode your orders. Unless, of course, you feel that I am unqualified to do so?"

All the hot air instantly deflated out of Narshen at those words, replaced with cold dread. Completely ignoring the assembled soldiers in front of him, Narshen quickly ducked into the tent to find an ancient, blind tutor waiting for him.

"M-Master Xavier," Narshen stammered, "this is… quiet unexpected…"

"Is it really that surprising, Narshen?" Xavier smiled slightly. "I must say, you have made a fine mess of Castle Araphen, don't you agree?"

"What do you mean, sir? I do not understand…"

"You understand nothing," Xavier cut Narshen off harshly. "While you have been meandering around Lycia plotting your campaign, a Pheraen cavalry host retook Castle Araphen, released the prisoners, and destroyed the garrison left here! Are you mentally ill or extremely incompetent? You knew exceedingly well that during the siege we did not encounter a single Lycian cavalry unit! The army was fortunate enough to sack Castle Araphen without suffering from Pherae's interference. And you lost the castle in one fell swoop because you left only fifty men to guard this precious passageway! What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Pherae retook Castle Araphen? What was Slater doing?" Narshen gasped.

"Imbecile," Xavier's brow creased in anger. "How do you expect fifty infantrymen to hold off a force of nearly one hundred Pheraen cavalry? It is not for nothing that Pherae is praised as the finest cavalry force in Elibe! I painstakingly bribed multiple bandits to sidetrack Pherae, successfully delaying them from aiding Araphen while the army took the castle. Now, due to your stupidity, Bern nearly lost all its gains! If Lycia had the soldiers to garrison Castle Araphen against attack, your entire division would have been left stranded in the middle of enemy territory with no possibility of supplies or reinforcements!"

"I beg your pardon, Master Xavier," Narshen bowed, cold sweat running down his temple. "Does… the king know…?"

"If the king knew of your incompetence, you would have already been sacked from your position," Xavier coughed, his anger cooling. "Fortunately, I was the only one aware that Pherae made a move against Araphen. Under the king's orders, I am here to oversee the remainder of the Lycian invasion, no matter how I busy I am with internal affairs. I will only aid you in the capacity of an advisor, but most of my attention is currently focused on managing the logistics of your current campaign."

"By logistics, I infer that you are referring to supplies, Master Xavier," Narshen said. "Fear not, my troops have already…"

"Pillaged the surrounding townships? Actually, they have done nothing of the sort," Xavier snorted. "Think about it, you fool. The more you antagonize the peasants, the more willing they are to oppose you. Your march would be impeded by guerilla attacks and efforts to conceal or spoil food and water. The more you harm the peasants, the more treacherous they may be. If left alone, most of the lower class do not mind who their overlord is. No, I will be supplying you with resources from Bern itself. Press your attack and concentrate your attention on Ostia."

"Master Xavier, Hector of Ostia is already dead," Narshen said in confusion. "Why would Ostia be a threat now that their leader is slain?"

"Because Pherae has already stolen a march on you," Xavier replied. "If Roy of Pherae leads the rescued troops from Araphen into Ostia, he may very well rebuild a Lycian Alliance army strong enough to challenge your division. Adding Ostia's formidable fortifications, you will have an abysmal time trying to take the city that even has two hundred defenders. Nevertheless, your orders are to push on and recapture the city."

"I… understand, it shall be done," Narshen took a deep breath to steady himself. "However, Master Xavier, what must I do if this Roy of Pherae decides to huddle behind Ostia's defenses? Is there a way I can breach the castle?"

"You want to breach the Invincible Castle? Are you crazy?" Xavier laughed. "If Roy of Pherae decides to, however unlikely given his youth, cower behind the walls of Ostia, you need only one item to force the Lycians into battle."

"What is that?"

Xavier's blind eyes opened, capturing Narshen in their golden pupils. "That is quite simple, Narshen. After all, I hear Hector of Ostia is interred near Castle Araphen. Why don't you personally seek out him out?"

Cath, the self-styled Master Thief, bit juicily into an apple as she made her way out of Castle Thria.

Her orange ponytail swished this way and that as Cath looked around slowly to make sure no guards were in evidence. Seeing no one in sight, she hefted a well-sized knapsack on her shoulder and continued on her way. Having liberated quite a few choice items from the castle the previous night, Cath had taken a brief nap in the castle stockroom until dawn. The ensuing chaos in the morning when the theft was discovered nearly turned the castle upside down. No one, however, had thought to search the food supplies for an intruder. The magistrate of the castle apparently thought that the thief had already escaped during the night. Naturally, any organized pursuit would find no sign of any thief making off.

Serves those idiots right, Cath snickered to herself. Since they all thought I escaped last night, no one will be on watch during the day! Nobles are only stuck-up, self-righteous, brainless pigs that are born into society with cushion underneath them. They're not like us, people who have to scrap and save to survive. They don't have to suffer from bandits like we do…

That thought instantly sobered Cath's mood. Cath hated to recall any reminder of her hometown and father. Cath was born in a little town called Cortaw in Laus. Ten years ago, Marquess Erik ordered the town to be torched for failing to pay the required taxes. Though commonly regarded as a barbaric tactic, this punishment was frequently used across Elibe to deal with unruly peasants that refused to pay taxes, particularly in the Western Isles. Prior to the incident, Cortaw was raided by a group of roving bandits, making off with the coins intended for the annual tax. Marquess Erik was deaf to the pleas of the residents and ordered his soldiers to put Cortaw to the torch. Initially, the villagers refused to burn their own homes. However, after the soldiers threatened to use force, Cath's father relented. He was the one who took kindle to torch and set the entire town ablaze. Cath never forgave him for being unable to stand up to the Laus soldiers.

If only that moron had the guts to resist them, we wouldn't have to suffer so much, Cath thought bitterly as she recalled the villagers' sour glances of betrayal. One of the damn reasons I left Cortaw was because I couldn't stand everyone looking at me like I grew a pair of horns. The gods know that we suffered enough through the years with poor harvests and frequent conscriptions. I'm sick and tired of sucking up to these nobles and their petty games. Let them kill each other for all I care, I wash my hands of their dealings.

The sound of metal boots clanking against the stone floor shook Cath from her dark musings.

Damn it, I knew I should have been watching where I was going instead of thinking about you, Dad! Thanks a lot for everything! Looking around wildly, Cath found herself trapped in the middle of a long hallway with footsteps approaching her from either side. With no pillars or tapestries in the hallway, Cath was caught in the open with nowhere to hide. Her only avenue of escape lay in a heavy wooden door not three steps away from her.

With no time to contemplate why there was only one door in such a long hallway, Cath threw herself at the door. Colliding solidly with the unyielding wood, Cath ignored her stinging shoulder as she fished for her set of lock picks. Even after the first two picks failed and the steps drew ever closer, Cath did not panic in the slightest as she patiently coaxed the lock clean. A skilled thief knew how to pick a lock, leaving the entryway open, but disguise the lock enough to fool any basic examination. After all, what was the use of picking a lock and entering a locked room only to have a guard notice that someone had broken in?

Darting a glance to her left, Cath caught sight of a mailed boot coming into sight. With no more time left, she gave the pick one final twist before pushing against the door with all her might. As if the gods answered her prayers, the door swung open soundlessly, allowing the female thief to quickly slip inside a dark room, closing the door quietly behind her.

Panting and trying to control her pounding pulse, Cath pressed one ear to the door to ascertain if her intrusion had been detected. The clanking steps steadily approached the doorway, stopped for a brief moment, then continued on their way. As the footsteps grew fainter and fainter, Cath let out a sigh of relief as she stood facing the doorway. The thief was just noting that the entire room was bereft of light when Cath noticed that she was not alone in the room.

Before Cath could even turn around, one hand covered her mouth while another grabbed her around the waist and threw her to the floor. Wiggling like an eel, Cath struggled to get free from whoever was behind her. With both her hands, Cath reached up and yanked the hand covering her mouth just far enough for her to sink her teeth into it. Surprisingly, her assailant didn't even falter, merely drawing their hand back and delivering a solid punch into Cath's stomach that made the female thief see stars.

Forced to relinquish her hold, Cath stopped biting and sent her elbow directly into the stomach of her attacker. That yielded the response she wanted, as the attacker hissed in pain and let go of the thief. Finally free of any hold, Cath scrambled to her feet and sprinted for the door. Just as she set her hand on the door latch, Cath heard someone rapidly approaching her from behind and ducked. Cath barely dodged the incoming blow as her assailant delivered a powerful punch into the door where her head would have been.

By the gods, this guy is freakishly strong! Cath thought as she rolled away from the doorstep. Her only exit now controlled by her opponent, Cath unsheathed the knife by her side. Thieves were not the best fighters by reputation, and Cath counted on her speed and wit to get her out of trouble. After that punch to the stomach from earlier, Cath was not entirely sure that she could take this mysterious foe in this room.

Whoever this opponent was, they were not about to give Cath a breather. Kicking off from the doorway, the attacker charged where Cath was standing. It took Cath a moment to realize how her opponent could see so well in the room.

You idiot, Cath, you came into this dark room from a lighted corridor, so your eyes are used to the light. Naturally, if you walk into a dark room, you'll be practically blind for a few long moments. This guy here has been in here for gods know how long. Of course he would be able to see perfectly! Sorry, don't hold this against me, pal.

Hearing her opponent bull forward, Cath timed her blow and struck downwards with a knife. With nowhere to run or hide, the thief needed to strike a decisive blow in order to buy time to escape. Loathe to kill, Cath prayed that her blow would only injure a shoulder and not strike a fatal blow. However, Cath was caught completely by surprise when her knife was ensnared by fabric.

Before Cath could respond to this sudden change, her attacker had already used the three layers of silk in their hand to wrench the knife from the thief's grasp. Tripping a stunned Cath with a quick low kick, the attack swiftly looped the silk in a crosswise-fashion around the young thief's neck. Without hesitation, Cath's opponent immediately started pulling on the silk. Cath immediately saw black and white spots exploding in her vision as her air supply was cut off. Struggling futilely with both hands to loosen the silk, Cath could only fight for her survival with no chance of striking against her opponent.

Damn it, is this the end of me already? Cath thought as she fought laboriously for breath. It took a solid minute for her to notice that her opponent had stopped moving and was very still. Then Cath's panicky brain registered someone knocking on the thick wooden door.

"Lady Sue," a guard called out from outside, "are you still struggling against the door? Forget it, better warriors than you have tried and none have succeeded. Now keep it down, will you? This castle is already in an uproar with a thief breaking in yesterday. Sheesh…"

When the guard left, Cath managed to gasp out. "You are a woman!?"

Her attacker laughed slightly, "I could say the same of you."

Sue slowly removed the silk around Cath's neck. The thief slowly rubbed the circulation back into her neck while grimacing at the angry red marks she felt underneath her hands.

"Even if you're a woman, there is no way in hell you are a lady!" Cath complained. "I almost died right here!"

Sue shrugged as she pulled up the blinds on the two windows, allowing light to stream back into the room. "I am a Sacaen. On the plains, both men and women are taught to fight equally. I am only referred to as a lady here in Lycia. I think that is because of my mother's standing. Anyways, I apologize for attacking you. I thought you were one of the guards who lost his way in the castle."

"Yeah, they don't seem to be very bright, do they?" Cath agreed. "Well, I guess it's alright, seeing as how I'm alive and all. My name is Cath, a thief stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Might I ask what you doing locked up in a room so far from the plains?"

"That's a long story," Sue said. "The long and short of it is that I fled here after the sack of Bulgar. The marquess here, Lord Orun, asked me to stay until Lord Hector returned. However, his magistrate, a vile man named Wagner, has seized control and imprisoned me in here while condemning his master to die."

"Heh, I don't give a pickle what happens to this Lord Orun," Cath said. "However, I'm looking for a way out of this place. Are you coming?"

Sue was not fooled for an instant. "Coming with you or leaving at the same time?"

Cath grinned. "Alright, so you're not one of those singing, dancing, naïve hippies I've met from Sacae. I mean coming with me so we break out of this iron crate together."

"Very well, but our time is limited," Sue said. "We only have three more candle marks before armed guards bring a meal to this room. Wagner still sees me as a potential bargaining chip for Father Sky knows what. This way, guards under his pay frequently check my status."

"Three candle marks is more than enough time, we'll be gone in one."

"Wait," Sue said, "how do you plan on leaving the castle? Since we can't exactly leave from the battlements, the castle gate is the only exit. Needless to say, it's heavily guarded."

Cath laughed. "Oh, that's easy, we'll leave the same way I came in."

Mystified, there was little Sue could do save follow Cath towards the indicated exit. After taking several long minutes to bypass the guards on patrol, Sue and Cath made their way to the rear of the kitchen. There, they hitched a ride in one of the wagons set to depart from the castle. Sue was worried that the soldiers would search the wagon, but Cath assured her that this wouldn't be an issue.

"How can you be so confident?" Sue asked.

"Simple," Cath yawned, "soldiers are lazy. They obey orders that absolutely must be done, but they only do so reluctantly. You don't need to take a look around, simply use your nose and you'll understand what I mean."

Sue took a deep whiff and nearly gagged. "You could have warned me that we were traveling in a garbage dump!"

"Live and learn, girl," Cath grinned. "I consider this payback for the earlier ambush."

True to Cath's words, the soldiers standing guard at the gates did not pose much of a problem. They only made a cursory inspection from a safe distance of ten yards before deciding that moving through the muck was pointless. The captain on duty waved the wagon through before five minutes were up.

A few minutes more and the wagon slowly ambled its way into the Thrian marketplace. Cath, peeking over the side of the wagon, noticed quite a few soldiers going about their business in town. Considering the marketplace too hot to leave the wagon, Cath tugged on Sue's sleeve and motioned to allow the wagon to leave the market before departing. Sue initially nodded her consent, but stiffened immediately upon hearing a horse's neigh.

Noticing Sue's reaction, Cath whispered. "What is it, Sue?"

"That neigh, it can't be…" Sue didn't even finish her sentence. She immediately jumped from the rear of the wagon and took off for the nearest stables.

Cath muttered an oath as she too jumped from wagon. If Sue was captured by the soldiers in town, a witness might remember that the Sacaen traveled in a garbage wagon. There was no reason to remain in the wagon any longer, waiting for pursuers.

I take it back, maybe she is one of those dim-witted types. Cath thought darkly as she followed Sue to the stables. She arrived to find Sue in a heated argument with the stable manager and two boys near her age.

"I'm telling you that's my horse!" Sue shouted. "His name is Searineau and I rode him here all the way from Bulgar!"

"Listen little missy," the stable manager explained, "I don't care if you owned this whippersnapper of a horse or not in the past. The fact is that these two young gentlemen want to buy this horse for their journey to Ostia. Now, they have the money, do you?"

One of the "young gentlemen," a green-haired lad wearing a yellow cloak and clutching a book under his arm, bowed to Sue. "I'm sorry, milady, but the two of us have urgent business in Ostia. We simply must get there as soon as possible and…"

"This does not change that Searineau belongs to me!" Sue shouted. "Wagner must have sold him while he imprisoned me in the castle!"

"Excuse me," Cath said, patting the other young man, a boy with bushy blonde hair and also wearing a cloak. "What appears to be the problem?"

The boy that Cath asked turned around with an irritable look on his face. "Well, this lady over here," he pointed to Sue, "seems to think that she can make off with a horse without paying a copper coin. I have the money, but she won't let me buy the horse."

"Oh, is that the case?" Cath pretended to be surprised, "Tell you what, since this lady here is my friend, I'll make a deal with you. She seems rather intent on this horse, so I'll match your price for him and pay you a little bonus so you can procure a horse elsewhere. Is that a deal?"

The boy thought for a moment. "Well, I don't mind…"

"Do you mind showing me how much you offered?" Cath suggested innocently.

"Sure, no problem…" The boy patted his pocket and immediately frowned. "What the…? My wallet is gone!"

"Oh dear, such a shame," Cath said mockingly as she drew forth a wallet from her own pocket and handed it to the stable manager. "Here is my sum for the horse. Please hand the reins to my lady friend here."

The stable manager looked at the four of them and shrugged. Taking the wallet, he inspected its contents before nodding in agreement. Without another word, he handed Searineau's reins over to Sue and left the stable.

The boy in the cloak, however, turned red with rage when he saw the wallet Cath handed over. Rounding on Cath, he shouted. "Why you dirty thief! That was my wallet you took from me to pay for the horse!"

"Ah, ah," Cath shook a finger in his face, "who says it was your money in the first place? Tell me, my friend," Cath turned to the green-haired boy, "what is the name of your friend?"

The boy looked confused. "His name is Chad."

"See there?" Cath said triumphantly, "The name embroidered on that wallet was Terrance. Evidently, the wallet belonged to someone else before you pilfered it. Now, I merely borrowed your wallet just like you borrowed someone else's. Take my advice as your elder: you've got a long ways to go as a thief, Mr. Chad."

The green-haired boy looked disapprovingly at Chad. "Chad, have you been stealing again?"

Chad was not pleased at being outwitted. "Come on, Lou, we have to meet the Lycian Alliance Army in Ostia somehow! How are we going to catch up with them if we're still stuck here in Thria?"

"Ahem," Cath coughed, "I hate to disabuse you of that notion, but the Lycian Alliance Army arrived in Thria two days ago. I saw their camp a few miles east of here when I was on my way to the castle. I think a delegation of the leaders went into the castle to meet the magistrate of something."

Sue looked horrified. "But the magistrate, Wagner, is plotting to defect to Bern! The delegation might be killed! We have to warn them somehow!"

"Not my problem," Cath shrugged. "It's none of my business if the nobles decide to cut each other's throats. Do what you want, I'm out of here."

Cath hefted her goody bag as she left the stables. Just as she melted into the crowds, she heard the sound of hooves pounding the pavement. Turning slightly, she saw Sue urging her horse into a fast gallop towards the east.

Good luck, Sue, maybe we'll meet again in the future, Cath thought. Switching the bag to her left shoulder, Cath the Master Thief drifted into the crowds and was lost to sight.

Cecilia fought back an urge to sigh in frustration as an aide entered her office to deposit yet another stack of papers for her signature. With no orders from the king to mobilize the armies, Etruria's military forces were stuck in perpetual alert status. Every since King Mordred was confined to bed for the duration of his illness, the three highest generals in Etruria could only watch with mounting dread as Bern steadily conquered every nation in its path. Sooner or later, the great Bern war machine would be encroaching upon Etruria's borders, but the ruling monarch seemed uninterested in dealing with the crisis. Since only the royal family could sanction military action, Cecilia, Percival and Douglas waited in vain for King Mordred to issue the order to prepare for Etruria's defense. To complicate matters, Lord Roartz and his lackey Arcard still maintained a stranglehold over the Etrurian court, denying any audience with the king to solicit approval for mobilization.

Etruria has an army of two thousand men even after the Silver Vanguard was dismantled, yet our country possesses even less initiative than the Lycian Alliance, Cecilia thought as she stamped another paper with her seal. We could only watch helplessly as Sacae and Ilia were ground underfoot. If even Lycia falls, there is no tangible way for Etruria to hold off a multi-fronted assault from Bern!

Cecilia had already received preliminary reports regarding the siege of Araphen. To her shock and considerable dismay, Cecilia realized that Bern was capable of committing a thousand men in one siege while another thousand soldiers were spread across Ilia and Sacae. Even if Etruria deployed every professional soldier in her army, Bern's pure numerical advantage might turn a battle into a rout.

Assuming we leave nearly five hundred soldiers to defend the capital, Cecilia thought, we would only have around fifteen hundred soldiers to split across the Ilian, Sacaen, and Lycian fronts. With his current power, King Zephiel is capable of amassing an army of four thousand standing soldiers, not counting any mercenaries hired as shock troops. Regardless of whether he advances with one large army or a series of smaller ones, we do not have a prayer of stopping his advance.

In her rich and glorious history, Etruria has won pitched battles with large armies fighting one another, but only at a high cost. It wasn't until Mark Valshannar vanquished the Pirate King's hordes at the Battle of Idina that Etruria first tasted such a smashing victory with few losses.

Then again, that battle was fought between a tactical genius on one side and a charismatic hothead on the other. The end result was not too surprising since it was General Valshannar commanding the Etrurian host, Cecilia mused. This time, we cannot count on such a radical advantage. By all accounts, King Zephiel has quite a few capable commanders at his disposal, and he is by no means a fool himself. My guess is that should Etruria and Bern come to blows, he will be present at the battle, but the overall command will be delegated to Murdock or Brenya.

Thankfully, both Dragon Generals had already conducted their respective campaigns against Ilia and Sacae, giving the Etruria generals precious time and examples to study their tactics. In battle, Brenya preferred the indirect approach, utilizing massive ranged bombardments from mages, archers and ballista to soften the foe before delivering the finishing blow to a demoralized enemy with a furious charge of heavy horse. The reason why Brenya was so effective in Sacae was her stubbornness on maintaining formation. With armored knights and heavy cavalry forming a ring of steel that protected the more vulnerable archers and mages in the center from Sacaen charges, Brenya's division would be less susceptible to guerrilla tactics. Cecilia could easily see her mirroring Brenya's tactics. Both female generals favor disciplined, textbook-based patterns that could turn their battle into a slugfest.

Dragon General Brenya and I might drag out the war for months at the least, Cecilia thought as she tapped her pen on the next paper before her. What worries me is the high probability that Murdock will command the invasion of Etruria.

Throughout King Desmond's lifetime and the earlier portions of King Zephiel's reign, Murdock appeared to be merely a loyal, competent bodyguard who just happened to hold the rank of Dragon General. There were many rumors floating around Elibe that he merely held the position due to his close friendship with the royal family. Many in Bern wondered if Murdock was even capable of fighting, given his gentle and patient nature.

Those rumors were utterly silenced after the Ilian campaign.

Though not nearly as dominating as Lord Mark, Murdock possesses an uncanny grasp of tactics and has no hesitancy to use his many assets. He alone of all three Dragon Generals coordinates his flying wyvern corps with the land forces perfectly, Cecilia was starting to develop a headache just remembering the report on Murdock's training regime. I daresay no one in Elibe trains his troops with more dedication than Murdock. Lord Mark once wrote in his memoirs that instituting a detailed and efficient training regime was essential to building a bond between leader and those who are led. Murdock's fanatical preparations would endear him to his troops, making them fight all the harder in battle.

Cecilia stopped her dark musings regarding Etruria's future to glare at the piles of paperwork scattered all over her desk. With nothing to do except occasionally meeting with her lieutenants and overseeing her division, Cecilia had developed the "brilliant" idea of going over paperwork to take her mind off the crisis. Instead of alleviating her headache, the task had only served to compound her frustration.

It was then someone knocked on her door. Huffing, Cecilia threw her pen down onto the table before shouting. "The door's open, come in!"

Her aide walked in. Clearly aware that the Mage General was not in one of her best moods, the man tried to keep the report short. "Mage General Cecilia, Sir Percival is here to see you. The Knight General claims that he brings news of Lycia."

Cecilia felt a strange sense of forboding. Taking a moment to compose herself, Cecilia said. "I understand. Please show Sir Percival in."

"I will do that immediately, ma'am."

The moment Percival walked into her office, Cecilia knew something had gone wrong. The Knight General only took one moment to close the door behind him before dropping his report. "Araphen has fallen."

Those three words nearly made Cecilia's heart stop. "What did you say?"

"Araphen has fallen," Percival repeated. "The garrison has been captured, the lords executed, and Lord Hector died in battle."

Cecilia fell back onto her chair. "The day we have long dreaded has come at last. With Lycia conquered, a war on three fronts is now inevitable."

"I concur," Percival admitted. "As we are speaking, Narshen's forces are moving across Lycia for Ostia. Once his forces are consolidated, Etruria…"

Cecilia looked up. "Wait, did you just say Narshen is moving for Ostia?"

"What difference does it make?" Percival asked, "Lycia is as good as gone."

"That is where you are wrong, Percival," Cecilia shook her head. "Out of the three Dragon Generals, Narshen is the only one I have confidence to outwit and outmaneuver. With a proper show of force, we can forestall Lycia's fall long enough for His Majesty's government to extend a hand of support."

"You seek to make Lycia a part of Etruria's commonwealth like the Western Isles?" Percival asked.

"In name only," Cecilia said. "If Lycia is claimed as a part of Etruria's assets and placed under Etrurian protection, Narshen would think twice about invasion. Remember, he is moving directly for Ostia, leaving countless fortified cities poised to strike in his back. Narshen is counting on a swift stroke to Lycia's jugular at Ostia, but if the campaign is drawn out, he will find himself beset by hostile forces on all sides."

"In other words, he will be forced to retreat."

Cecilia nodded. "Every second is precious now, Percival. You know as well as I do that the nobles will block every measure for war until absolutely necessary. Most of the nobles have taken some part in the mineral trades in the Western Isles. If war were to break out…"

"All mining operations will be transferred to the Etrurian government to finance the war instead of privately maintained," Percival finished. "That would be synonymous to taking their money bags away from them."

"Exactly," Cecilia said. "Thus, they will only allow Etruria to declare war if Bern is already on our doorstep. By then, everything will be too late. If Lycia can buy Etruria another six months, I believe our preparations will be at an acceptable level."

"And if Bern attacks now through Ilia or Sacae?"

Cecilia threw up her hands. "That will depend on how competent you and I are in battle. We can probably fend off Murdock and Brenya for a short period of time, at least dragging out the invasion by waylaying them at every opportunity. However, I do not have much hope for victory if we were attacked presently. Fortunately, the seasons are currently with us and against them. Murdock and Brenya conducted their invasions during fall, just before the harsh winters set in. Now, with the winter snows in full force in Ilia, Murdock's division will be unable to move from their current location. Brenya is trying to rein the Sacaen tribes in line with the help of the Djute. I daresay they will be occupied for a while."

"However, you have not answered the most important question," Percival frowned. "Only the royal family can authorize military action. How do you plan on circumventing that little detail if we cannot even see His Majesty?"

Cecilia's grin turned a tad feral. "Simple, what they do not know won't hurt them."

Percival's eyes widened. "You can't possible mean…"

"Preemptive strike," Cecilia said. "I will let our beloved Lord Roartz and Arcard handle the political repercussions. It's about time they pulled their weight anyways."

"You're going to get sacked for this," Percival predicted.

Cecilia shrugged. "Good, maybe then I can go freelance for Lycia like I did twenty years ago. The gods know that Lycians can be so much easier to deal with than Etrurians sometimes. So are you going to help me or not?"

Percival sighed. "If the situation was not so dire, I would order you tied to a chair to prevent your mad plans. Yet, I find that I simply cannot let you go off alone to fight for Etruria's future. I'll summon my legion immediately."

"Thank you," Cecilia said as she rose from her chair. "And remember, not a word to…"

"Not a word to Douglas, I know, I know."

By all accounts, Wagner should be pleased that his coup went off without a hitch. The guards were safely on his payroll, the annoying Sacaen girl confined to a tower, Lord Orun died quietly in his bed, and the general populace was blissfully unaware of the transfer of power. To top it all off, Wagner's connections within Bern had informd him of the utter destruction of the Lycian Alliance Army at Castle Araphen and triumphant march of the Bern army across Lycia. All that Wagner had to do was quickly surrender the castle to Bern's invading forces and his own assimilation into the Bern Kingdom was guaranteed. Everything was going according to plan…

Until a certain frustratingly annoying, god-forsaken Roy of Pherae entered Thria's territorial borders at the head of two hundred men-at-arms, Wagner thought with irritation. Someone loyal to Orun must have leaked the situation to Ostia. Ostia then dispatched Pherae to quell my little uprising.

Wagner knew perfectly well that Thria was in no condition to withstand Pherae if Roy chose to slay the conspirators. After Sir Pandarus departed for Araphen with the majority of Thria's available men-at-arms, there were roughly two dozen armed soldiers guarding the castle. Naturally, the small amount of soldiers facilitated the bribery process, but they were hopeless to challenge the powerful force that Roy had at his disposal. Even if Roy did not deploy his cavalry, the hundred odd soldiers at his command would quickly crush any resistance that Wagner could organize.

Somehow, I need to arrange this so that Lord Roy only enters the castle with a few retainers, Wagner mused. This way, I can arrange an ambush within the throne room. With the retainers dead and Roy a captive, I will be able to bargain or negotiate with the army outside the castle until Bern arrives. If only I can hold out long enough, Bern can rout these pathetic peasants from Thria. The only problem is what excuse do I have to make sure Roy leaves his army outside the castle?

While Wagner was brooding over his choices in the throne room, one of the Thrian soldiers that he converted approached. Seeing that his master did not notice his presence, the soldier coughed politely.

"Magistrate," the soldier said, "I bring a message from Lord Roy of Pherae."

It would not do to scare my men; they're edgy enough as it is. Wagner tried to hide his unease. "Have you greeted Lord Roy in the name of Lord Orun?"

"Yes, magistrate."

Now for the more delicate part, Wagner thought as he continued, "I see. Does Lord Roy wish to move his army inside the castle?"

"On the contrary, magistrate, Lord Roy has asked that he enter the castle with a handful of attendants. Lord Roy believes that the army would pose unnecessary burdens upon the populace if he moves the army within the town. Therefore, he has ordered the army to encamp five miles east of the castle. Lord Roy currently awaits your reply at the gates of the castle."

The gods do love me! The fifteen-year old brat has played right into my hands! Wagner could barely hide his excitement. "Is that his entire message?"

"Yes, magistrate," the soldier bowed before asking nervously. "But magistrate, what if Lord Roy already knows that Lord Orun is already dead? He may call for all of our heads!"

"You nitwit," Wagner's smile was condescending to say the least, "if Lord Roy already knew of our little rebellion, he wouldn't be wasting words informing us of his plans. He would have already ordered his forces to attack the castle. By accepting the greeting of our late master, Lord Roy is assuming that he is still alive. Naturally, he will be entering the castle to pay his respects."

"But how does that benefit us…" The soldier's eyes widened as he realized what Wagner was driving at. "Oh, I see…"

Wagner nodded. "So you do understand. Lord Roy with half a dozen retainers is certainly easier to deal with than Lord Roy with two hundred swords at his back, correct?"

"Yes, magistrate," the soldier nodded. "So what would you have us do?"

"You are a very smart lad, since you realize that your survival is entirely in my hands," Wagner sneered. "Tell your comrades that any thought of surrender better be wiped from their minds. In Lycia, the penalty for rebellion and assassinating one's lord is punishable by death! There is no escape if any of you chose to betray me!"

The soldier gulped. "I will convey your message, magistrate."

"Very good," Wagner continued. "Inform the men that we will be laying a snare for Lord Roy and his companions. Post two men at the castle gates, but keep the gate open! We must not raise any suspicion, lest they back out on their generous offer and bring in a larger body of men. I will lure them into the main conference chamber, where a few refreshments are in order. The rest of you will be waiting outside the room, awaiting my signal. When you hear me throw my goblet to the ground, rush into the room. I'd prefer to have as many live captives as possible, but any who resist are to be killed immediately. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly, magistrate," the soldier saluted. "We will uphold our end of the plan."

"Be on your way," Wagner waved his hand. "Please convey Lord Orun's acceptance of Lord Roy's offer. Inform Pherae that, due to Lord Orun's illness, I will be the one welcoming him in the main conference chamber."

"At once, magistrate!"

After the soldier departed, Wagner signaled for an attendant to bring food and drinks to the conference chamber. Turning on his heel, the magistrate of Thria hurried for the room himself.

Entering the room, Wagner rubbed his hands in satisfaction. I can still survive this mishap! With the necessary pawns in place, I can easily checkmate this young noble and provide additional reason for Bern to accept my surrender. Even if the worse comes to pass, I still have an ace up my sleeve.

The main conference chamber was dominated by a large rectangular table along with the eight chairs that surrounded it. The chamber only had one entrance, and Wagner walked to the seat at the head of the table, farthest from the entrance. Taking a key from his pocket, Wagner unlocked the drawer there and withdrew an ancient tome.

After a quick review of the contents and feeling the power surging from the tome into his fingertips, Wagner was satisfied that his mind could still bear the burden of magical concentration. There, that should be enough of a guarantee against mishap. Now, all I have to do is to wait for the players to assemble upon the prearranged stage.

He didn't have to wait long. Less than five minutes after Wagner had composed himself, a knock was heard on the great oaken doors that formed the entrance to the conference chamber. With a groan, the door was pushed aside to reveal a red-haired young man garbed in blue leggings and light chain mail. He was followed by several members of the church, as well as a lady of incredible beauty who wore a red dress.

A small party as expected, Wagner thought as he rose from his seat and bowed deeply. "Lord Roy, I presume? Thria is honored with your presence. Regrettably, my master Lord Orun is confined to bed due to a heavy fever. I am Wagner, the magistrate of Thria. I am the one currently overseeing Thria for the duration of my lord's illness. I beg your forgiveness for such a rude welcome. Might I offer you some refreshments for the journey?"

Roy smiled as he accepted a cup of water. "Do not worry too much regarding the welcome, since I will only be staying for a short period of time. Magistrate Wagner, allow me to introduce my companions." The young noble extended a hand towards a blue-haired priest and the freckled-archer beside him. "This is Father Saul, a member of the St. Elimine Church, and Miss Dorothy, his assistant. The lady is Princess Guinevere of Bern, accompanied by her attendant, Sister Ellen."

By the gods, it seems that another incredible opportunity has dropped into my lap! To imagine a royal of Bern sitting in front of me! Wagner quickly reined in his daydreams before he revealed his eagerness. "Thria is blessed with your presence, princess. It has been too long since a royal last graced this humble land."

Guinevere smiled sadly. "Originally, I ventured into Lycia with hopes of peace between the two nations, but an armistice is rapidly becoming an elusive hope. I fear my brother has gone too far for the damage to be repaired…"

"Ah, Your Highness must be referring to the siege of Castle Araphen?" Wagner's tone was sympathetic. "Indeed, such an incredible waste of lives with the defeat of the Alliance at…"

"Just a minute," the priest named Saul interjected. "Magistrate Wagner, how did you know that Castle Araphen has already fallen? It has only been a week since Lord Roy departed Araphen with the rescued Alliance soldiers and barely ten days since the siege itself. As it stands, Lord Roy commands the only body of soldiers that has passed this far west and carries the news of Araphen. Pray explain this enigma to me…?"

Damn my tongue and twice damn this nosy priest! Wagner pretended to be shocked by Saul's question to cover his error. "Why, Father Saul, rumors have been flying in all directions for this past week or so! I, for one, do not know where the rumors originated from, but all sorts of tales are sprouting regarding the fall of Araphen and the advance of Bern!"

Saul did not look entirely convinced. "I see… If you say so, then I suppose it is logical from that point of view."

Roy frowned with displeasure. "Magistrate Wagner, you are currently acting in place of Lord Orun. You would do well to remember your place and keep a tight lid on state affairs. It does not bode well if even high-ranking officials are gossiping amongst one another and speculating regarding state secrets. What will the people think?"

Upstart brat, Wagner thought as he bowed. "I apologize for my lack of décor, Lord Roy. I am concerned about the future of Lycia and spoke out of turn. Forgive me for my indiscretion."

"That is easily done," Roy said, his smile returning. "However, I would like to see Lord Orun as soon as possible. It is quite alright if Lord Orun is asleep, I would just like to inform…"

"Oh, my, pardon me," Wagner nearly panicked, "you cannot see Lord Orun, Lord Roy?"

Roy raised an eyebrow. "I cannot see Lord Orun? Is there a reason?"

Another slip of the tongue, what is wrong with me!? Wagner fumbled for a reply, "Well, you see, Lord Roy, my master is terribly ill and I fear the disease is extremely contagious. Several doctors who have visited him have also contacted the same disease and are also gravely ill. I simply allow another noble peer to risk their health in such a manner!"

"I was not aware that the illness was so serious," Roy sounded surprised. "When I asked the guards the state of Lord Orun's illness, I was informed that he had only caught a small chill and would return to his normal self in a few days."

"I hid the truth from the guards, telling them that it was only a small malady to alleviate their fears," Wagner lied. "With Sir Pandarus away at Araphen and Lord Orun ill, Thria could panic if the truth were known. Thus, I contrived to keep the situation a secret until Lord Orun recovered." I knew I should have warned them to keep silent…

"If that is the case," Ellen said, "do you mind if I examined Lord Orun briefly? I have considerable expertise in treating strange illnesses and fevers in Bern. Perchance I can do something to aid Lord Orun?"

"But the disease is extremely contagious!" Wagner exclaimed. "Merely taking a whiff of Lord Orun's breathing could contract the disease!"

"I am aware of most manners that a disease can be spread," Ellen answered, "so I will take appropriate precautions. It is my role as a healer, after all. I hope my lady can vouch for me?" Ellen directed a shy glance towards Guinevere.

Guinevere smiled gently at Ellen. "Indeed I can. I assure you, Magistrate Wagner, Ellen is incredibly talented in the healing arts. I have witnessed many mysterious ailments that have confounded many a doctor healed by her hands in no time. Please allow her to do what she can?"

Curses, I am running out of excuses! Wagner clenched the goblet of wine in his hand. "I simply cannot allow you to endanger yourself, Miss Ellen. You are Princess Guinevere's attendant! It would be disastrous if you were to contact this disease during the princess's peace mission. What would she do without you?"

"Oh, right," Ellen looked crestfallen. "I am dreadfully sorry, milady. I forgot that I might be a burden to you…"

"Nonsense," Guinevere said, "you are only doing your duty as a healer. It is your pure heart that shows through when the first thought that occupies your mind are those afflicted by injury or illness. There is nothing to forgive."

Roy's frown deepened. "This is all very difficult. With no first hand account of Lord Orun's condition, there is little I can make a report on. How am I supposed to tell Lilina her step…"

Dorothy coughed. "Master Roy, you also need to report to Lord Hector regarding his half-brother's condition as well."

Roy flashed a glance at Dorothy, but immediately nodded afterwards. "Quite right, Lord Hector would be extremely interested as well."

WHAT!? "L-L-Lord Hector!?" Wagner gasped. "But Lord Hector is dead!"

Dorothy cocked her head to one side. "Magistrate Wagner, what do you mean by that?"

"I… I mean, you've all been to Araphen," Wagner babbled, "you should all know that Lord Hector has been slain in battle! He was killed by the King of Bern!"

Saul smiled tightly. "More rumors again?"

Wait, what is with this change in atmosphere? Wagner suddenly noticed that everyone was gazing at him with a strange expression written on their faces. "What are you talking about, Father Saul? Everyone in Thria is talking about the death of Lord Hector at the hands of King Zephiel!"

"Curious, I must be deaf then," Saul said, "since I heard nothing regarding Lord Hector's demise. Surely you must know the origin of this tall tale?"

"Some Lycian survivor of the siege must have brought the tale," Wagner said, "thought I do not know who specifically…"

"Impossible," Roy said flatly. "Half of the survivors from Araphen are in my encampment five miles from here, while the other half is a day's march behind us on the road. No Lycian soldier could have spread such malicious lies."

"Magistrate Wagner, you appear to be quite knowledgeable about things you have no business knowing," Saul said. "It's true that the Lycian Alliance Army knows that Lord Hector died at Araphen, but only a select few are privy to the information that Lord Hector fell at the hands of King Zephiel. All told, less than twenty Lycians know the truth. Could you please explain your expertise in perpetrating state secrets?"

By the gods, these fiends set me up…! Wagner could think of little else as the goblet dropped from his nerveless hands. The goblet, heavily laden with wine, shattered into pieces on the hard masonry at his feet.

At the sound, the door leading out of the conference chamber burst open, revealing half a dozen armored spearmen. Extending their spears forward, they slowly advanced, keeping most of their weaponry trained upon Roy, the only one who wore a sword. Saul remained facing Wagner, while the other three stood between the priest and Roy.

Roy drew his sword in one smooth motion. Facing the spearmen with the others at his back, he growled. "So, it will be treachery along with treason, Wagner?"

So be it, I have no other choice now. Wagner tightly gripped the tome he took earlier from the conference table. "Lycia left me no choice but to consider my future options, Lord Roy. Bern's prospects are on the rise, why bother going down with Lycia's sinking ship?"

"Niggardly coward," Roy spat back. "To protect one's country to the last drop of blood is the duty of every soldier!"

"Then you may die for your beliefs," Wagner sniffed. "All I need now is Princess Guinevere to gain Bern's pardon for our rebellion against King Zephiel's sovereignty."

"Our rebellion?" Roy roared. "Lycia fights for its independence and you dare to profane it as an insurrection!?"

"Kill them all," Wagner said, "but leave the princess alive."

The spearmen were about to cross the threshold of the doorway, but Roy met them before they could pass. The noble's sword flashed as he swung and parried, parting the spears to advance to a closer range. Obviously, the spears possessed more reach than Roy's sword, but if Roy could move within the spear's functional range, the long weapon would be useless.

Seeing the danger, the two foremost men-at-arms dropped their spears and drew swords. Supported by the four spears behind them, the two charged forward and struck. Roy kicked a chair into one man while he blocked the second with his sword. Dancing out of the way, the Pheraen lord barely averted being skewered by the spears. The moment Roy moved out of the way, Dorothy sent a feathered shaft whistling into one of the spearmen. The bolt struck the man in the chest, dropping him instantly. At such a close range, even the light plate mail that the men-at-arms wore were like paper before the power of a longbow.

While they are busy dealing with Roy, I shall enjoy sending this priest to the depths of hell. Wagner leered at Saul and Dorothy, "So, which one of you shall I kill first? Arise, arcane pact of the abyss! I bid thee to come forth and obliterate…"

Saul did not seem fazed in the slightest. "O almighty God who judges the heavens, I implore thee to grant thy mercy…"

Is he praying for his life already? Wagner continued, "…my enemies. Rain thy destructive plague upon all who oppose thy will. Go forth!"

From Wagner's fingertips, a burst of nether energy surged forth and shot towards Saul. Watching with sadistic glee, Wagner could already envision the priest writhing on the ground as the dark magic tore his insides apart. Instead, the nether energy was immolated by white fire the instant the magic moved within a one foot radius around Saul.

"What the hell have you done?" Wagner screeched, "Why won't you just die?"

"…and send thy avenging sword against all who blaspheme your name. Glorious king of kings, show us the sign that thou are indeed the one true God!" Saul intoned as he held up a prayer book, "Never seen holy magic before, traitor?"

No, no, how can this be happening to me? Wagner backed away. "No, please, have mercy on me!!"

"You who would have shown us no mercy," Saul barked as the holy magic homed in on Wagner, "shall receive none in kind!"

Wagner screeched in agony as the holy magic burned like fire when it struck him. The magic blasted his tome into a thousand pieces of fluttering paper and knocked Wagner back into the wall behind him.

Saul crossed himself. "Father in heaven, I send another soul to you for judgment. Judge him fairly for his sins and deeds. Amen."

Wagner could already feel his vision growing darker and darker. On his knees, Wagner spat out a mouthful of blood and stretched one hand towards Saul. "You… fools… There is nothing… that can stop… Bern now… Ha… I will be waiting for… all of you… in hell!"

Wagner was dead before he could even see his men chopped to pieces by Roy's knights.

Chapter complete. Thank you for reading.