**Disclaimer: Digimon does not belong to me! Just borrowing the names, that's all. (that's really all I'm borrowing, am I?)
**Author's notes: *breaks down in tears* Thank you, I've finally had a chance to do some writing! Now that it's summer, I'm gonna be writing up a storm! I apologize for the long wait, but now that it's summer, I'll try to post more frequently.
"Seihad" takes place six years after the end of "Pilgrimage", so everyone's a bit older. You can do the math, but generally, everyone's in their early twenties except for Cody, who's in his late teens. Quite a bit of things have changed. Actually…more on that in the ending author's notes. You'll see what I mean after you've read this. Have fun!
Seihad: Chapter One
By: TK Takaishi
"And it shall come to pass that dark forces will stir in the land. Tides of black, as numerous as the sands on the seashore, or the stars in the velvet night will wash across the green fields. No blade of grass will remain untouched, and the very land will become poisoned by the darkness' mere presence. For seventeen years he shall work unseen, unheard among the kingdoms of Gaea.
He shall whisper in the ears of those with power, whisper of dark deeds and heinous thoughts. And the weak-willed puppets will follow, subtly guided by the long-reaching arm of the Lying One. The deceiver will even use the scriptures of your God against you, for there is nothing he cannot corrupt and twist to sway the gullible. This shall be known as the First Kannanshinku.
And when the covenant of the ancient Council has been shattered beyond remaking, only then will he move outright. Only then will his frightful campaign of evil shall start its unholy crusade across the broken land of Heaven. And those who listened in his whispers will be destroyed, like chaff thrown into the fire.
This shall be known as the Seihad, the sign of the Tenken. For though the Tenken will bring peace, his coming will herald the coming of war.
Beware the false Emperor! Beware his lies and his treachery, more so than his sword!"
**April 7th, A.S. 522**
On the island of Akeldama, eternal night reigned over the broken land. Bruised, angry grey clouds obscured the sky, and no sunlight ever reached the ice-cold earth. Not a blade of grass could survive Akeldama's poisoned and stony land where the soil is acid, and the rock is hard and unyielding. Blackened trees reached towards the sky with gnarled and twisted twigs and branches like skeletal fingers, as if pleading for the warmth of the sun and the blessing of rain, but there was no mercy from the unsympathetic heavens. The forsaken land was harsh, and the "field of blood" was aptly named. Swirling, vicious winds scoured the land like hungry wolves and tore apart what little was left.
But at the very center of the volcanic island, a dark, crouching beast of a city loomed against the hazy horizon. Within its walls, hordes upon hordes of soldiers marched and prepared. Black armour and black leather blended into the dark soil, and swords and ensignas gleamed golden with the symbol of the serpent. They covered the city, as numerous as the sands on the seashore, or the stars in the velvet night sky. Tens of thousands of soldiers worked with a joint purpose like ants in a hive. Army after army assembled for instructions, then dispersed again, even as another division met elsewhere. Horses whinnied and stomped, sensing the excitement and fervent anticipation in the air. Supply wagons and wagons were carefully loaded and unloaded. And across the land, even more soldiers were coming.
Entire legions converged on the city like roiling rivers of glinting metal weapons and black leather and armour. Thousands upon hundreds of thousands joined the throng, gathering from all across the dark island, marching with singular purpose. The plumes of dust that rose from their feet were so numerous and so thick that they covered the sky like land-hugging clouds. The beast was gathering its strength, and sharpening its claws.
There were many towers within the city, but a single forlorn building stood above them all. Black, streaming banners, emblazoned with the golden serpent of Khaydarin, whipped about in the wind as they flew proudly from atop many roofs. Within the palace too, activity was everywhere. Soldiers, all with grim, yet excited expressions on their faces, padded through the halls purposefully. Leaders argued over maps, pointing this way and that. Arms were brought out of storage and assigned carefully to each man as needed. Every smithy and forge in the city had their furnaces burning brighter and hotter than ever before as an endless supply of swords, spears, halberds, shields and armour was forged.
As one went deeper and deeper into the fortress, the activity began to thin. Finally, about three stories down, it ceased. Within the very bowels of the city, far underground, beneath flight after flight of spiraling stone steps, a steady drip of water sounded against the granite stone floor. That was all there was to hear.
It was dark in the throne room. Dark and cold. There were no banners, no red carpets or tapestries. The only thing other than the cold, bare stone was the gleaming serpent engraved into the ground, and lined with precious gold. Everything else had been stripped away years ago. Ancient torches flickered feebly on the their stands, failing to illuminate even the farthest wall. The room was like a sea of black, broken only by the torches' islands of light.
In the flickering light, six dark figures were kneeled upon the stony ground in mute respect, their heads bowed down in reverence. Their satin black capes shimmered oddly in the weak light, as if the very fabric choked and perverted what little light there was. The illuminated portions of the room were black and cold, glowing with a dim, eerie blue. In fact, the harder one looked, the harder it was to focus on the shifting cloaks. Six metal maskes lay next to each of the Praetors, each one unique, each one adorned with one solitary jewel, different in color and different in form. In here, it was death that reigned, personified in the utter silence.
Then at their front, something stirred in the darkness, folding the inky blackness over and over like a cloak. A faint breeze whistled around the room, and the torches dimmed as they were blown about. In a moment however, the breeze was gone. And in its place was a silence deeper than ever before.
The leading figure raised his head. His long brown hair cascaded over his back, reaching all the way down to his waist, and the coal-black eyes glimmered slightly in the torch-light. "Emperor," he intoned, "we, your servants, are here. By blood, you have bound us, and by blood you have called. We come, my Lord Tichon, to serve."
The face of the Emperor appeared out of the darkness. The cruelly handsome features were the same as the one Yamato had beheld all those years ago. The only difference was that the flesh seemed to have been drawn closer to the skull, as if only a paper-thin layer of skin covered the bare bone. For a brief moment, the eyes seemed to flash red, then returned to normal. Tichon's outline seemed to shimmer blue in the darkness. "The consequences," his sibilant voice whispered, "of your previous failures are upon us."
Karensky felt a shiver run down his spine, and he did not dare raise his eyes all the way to meet the Emperor's own. The Emperor Tichon of Khaydarin had…changed in the last few years. More and more the monarch seemed to dislike the light now, as if he was eternally cloaked in the night. The man's dark cloak had acquired a hood, which he wore whenever he emerged out of his throne room, which in itself was becoming a rare event indeed.
"The battle goes well, my Lord," the Praetor said, keeping his voice carefully neutral. "Arei and Chironsala have already fallen, the former two months ago, the latter a year. Ichijouji's defense is beginning to crack after four years of constant attack, and they are beginning to lose ground. Already the outlying provinces of Shan-Tong and Man-Tong are under our control. Before long, we will have total control over the eastern seacoast. From there, we can launch a campaign against all of Gaea."
A hiss caressed the collective Praetor's ears. "And?"
"On the southern front," another Praetor, to the left of Karensky added. "The Saera desert has become impassable to all. No troops may travel in either direction. There is a barricade twenty leagues long, across which no man may hope to pass through alive. And as we speak, we are trying to invade Sheid to extend the barricade further north."
The Khaydarin Emperor however, did not smile. "But Yaerin, you lost a battle." It was not a question. When nobody answered, the Emperor's lips curled back to bare his teeth.
"Do not lie to me…"
Finally, the Praetor who had pronounced the Saera desert impassable ventured forth in a cautious voice. "I lost a skirmish on the western front my Lord," Yaerin said. "It was a small battle, and an insignificant loss to my campaign…"
"Continue…" Tichon's voice was a dangerous hiss.
Karensky carefully kept his eyes trained on a spot in the ground. This business had nothing to do with him. Behind him, the Praetor paused briefly, then went on in a sullen voice. "Before I was recalled here, I had the Ichijoujan city of Eidan surrounded and under siege. The city was on the verge of falling when we were taken by surprise by a full legion of Shienar troops. I had no choice but to retreat."
Tichon's voice sank to a caressing whisper. "Is that all, Yaerin?"
Yaerin frowned. "Yes, my Lord. It was a small skirmish. Nothing more."
There was a sharp intake of breath from the throne in front of them. A blast of cold seemed to freeze the marrow in the Praetor's bones as the Emperor's wrath washed over them like a breaking wave. "Yaerin, you fool! You are a lowly frog in the well, and you think your slimy pond is the universe. I see from the sky! You call this not important?! You have obviously failed to prevent aid and messengers from flowing between these two kingdoms as you have been commanded to do!"
"It was not important!" Yaerin's eyes flashed. "I retreated and gathered my army along the breadth of the Saera desert, returned with twice my original numbers, and took the city two weeks afterwards! It was merely a small setback…"
There was a long pause. "Yaerin," the voice said, quietly, and almost gently again. "You dare defy me?"
The man cut himself off. His eyes were suddenly wide with fear. "No, my Lord, I did not mean to. I swear on my soldier's honour!"
"I, on the other hand, could've sworn, Yaerin," the Emperor said dangerously, "that you were trying to hide this defeat from me. To hide your failure.
"Don't you see? The city itself is not important. But isolation is everything. The kingdoms must be separated to fend for themselves, like pitiful little islands to be worn away bit by bit by the waves we will send against them. You were commanded to stop any messages, diplomats, or aid from flowing. And you have failed!"
"No, my Lord!" Yaerin gasped. "I did not! I was not trying to-"
"Had you come straight to me with this news," the Emperor mused, "I would not have been this displeased. You might even have been awarded. But now this…this is unacceptable."
Yaerin's face was turning a sickly shade of blue with fear. He was starting to back away now, shaking his head vigorously. "No," he moaned. "Mercy, Lord…mercy…."
Tichon's red eyes narrowed. "Useless piece of scum," he growled. In the darkness, it was hard to be sure, but Karensky thought he saw the man clench his fist. There was a brief flicker of black on black around the gloved hand, so dark it was almost painful to look at.
"Die for me."
And Yaerin started screaming.
Before the Praetor's startled eyes, the Emperor's dark magic began to turn the man a hideous dark purple. Veins swelled out from his flesh and burst, leaving large ugly stains of black blood on his skin. The man's eyes bulged until they looked ready to burst, rolling upwards until only the whites were visible. His limbs began to swell like a balloon, his body expanding as if filled with a rotting pus. In a matter of moments after Tichon had begun his spell, Yaerin was almost twice his original size.
Karensky turned his head aside as the man suddenly burst in a shower of discoloured blood. Limbs, bones and rotting rancid flesh sprayed in all directions. Where Yaerin's blood touched the ground, plumes of sickly purple smoke steamed from the hissing ground as it ate into the solid stone. Yaerin's bloated head rolled along the ground until it gaped lifelessly up at Karensky. Shuddering, the Praetor kicked it away, not daring to touch it with his hand.
The Praetor fell silent. The torches on the wall flickered again. Nobody dared to breathe.
"Fools!" the Emperor's voice snapped again like a whip-crack. "What has happened? Two kingdoms of Gaea has united against us! We spent more than a decade shattering the remnants of the Council's alliance between the kingdoms. When we began the campaign for outright conquest four years ago, we did it in confidence that the kingdoms would never again join forces against us. And now, has all our work been undone?!"
"It was only a single legion. King Bjorn of Sheid was half-hearted in his help…"
"All it takes," the hiss faded to a whisper, "is a seed. Have you not read the scriptures of our enemies? The prophet of Mark himself says, 'Like seed sown on good soil, others will hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown.'"
Tichon thrust a finger at the collective six. The eyes glowed an even brighter red with the fury of the Emperor's words. "You. You failed seven years ago to destroy the new generation of stand-masters. And now, they are out there, working against us. You have failed to uproot the weed, and now it is beginning to grow thorns!"
"With all due respect," Karensky said. "They are only six people…"
"Six people were all it took to decide the first Seihad!! To you, perhaps, the events of five hundred years ago seems irrelevant. But me? I remember it as if it was yesterday! Only six? You fools, all it takes is one!!"
Nobody spoke. The Emperor's wrath filled the room, stifling every breath that the Praetors took.
"There is still hope," the Emperor breathed. "The sapling is not full-grown yet.
"Karensky, Mordaen, I give you two months. You have two months to conquer Ichijouji. From there, we shall use the eastern coast as a base to launch our campaign. In two months time, I want a secure beach-head on eastern Gaea so that I can begin to transport my armies across for a final crusade across the continent. From the north, south, and to the west, I want the entire continent scoured clean within one year of today."
There was a long pause. "My Lord," one of the Praetors said carefully. "We can establish the beachhead, but it will not last long unless troops can be transported across quickly. We do not have enough ships…"
"You leave that to me," Tichon hissed. "I have my ways. Don't worry Jadan, the armies will get across quickly enough"
"It will be difficult," Jadan said reluctantly, cringing as he half-expected the Emperor's wrath to descend upon his head. "In a war of attrition, we can win easily. In a lightning war-"
"If you had not failed me seven years ago, we would not have to resort to a lightning war! This is now a race. Before the stand-masters can complete their work, we must ensure that too many kingdoms have been destroyed for the remainder to pose a threat to us." The Emperor's red eyes flashed suddenly, widening in a spasm of barely restrained fury. "For five hundred years I have built my Empire and my army piece by painstaking piece, while my enemies have let their guard and armies dwindle into nothingness, secure in their fragile castles and their peace. Victory is within my grasp! I will not have it all undone now!
"Jadan, Kirishima, target the stand kingdoms. I want travel between any of them impossible. No troops, no trade, and certainly no aid is to flow without deadly consequences. Not even messengers are to escape your attention.
"If possible, I want every single stand-master dead. Failing that, I want every shred of power they have shattered. I want their followers killed and desecrated, their families murdered, their kingdoms destroyed beyond the faintest hope of recovery."
"Yes, my Lord," both Praetors said in unison, keeping their eyes locked on the ground.
"Go now." Tichon's eyes flared once again. "And if you cannot do that within two months, you will all wish you had gone the way Yaerin did."
A moment of silence passed. Nobody looked at the still hissing mass of flesh that was all that remained of Praetor Yaerin. Then one by one, each of the Praetor's stood up. Karensky adjusted his cloak as he straightened, holding his mask in his hand, bowed one final time to the Emperor, turned on his heel and walked away. Behind him trailed the remaining four.
"Praetor Locke, stay."
One of the retreating Praetors hesitated, then stopped and turned around. The other four glanced at one another, then walked through the door, leaving the one behind. Tichon's red eyes narrowed as he gazed upon the solitary Khaydarin Praetor.
"I have an assignment for you."
Locke raised his storm-gray eyes, brushing his brown locks of hair away so as not to interfere in his vision. "I live to serve," he said softly.
Tichon smiled as he leaned back and crossed his legs. Resting his elbows against the edges of his throne, he steepled his fingers and rested them against his chin. "I will not lie to you, Praetor Locke," he said. "You command the best corps of men in my army. In six years you have managed to take Praetor Caylor's already impressive force and turn it into something truly formidable. Above and beyond what your illustrious predecessor has built."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"That is why," Tichon said, his smile fading, "you are being chosen for this assignment. That, and something else. You served under Caylor Ga'artred for three years, no?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"You know him well?"
"I served as his personal assistant for a year before he…left."
There was a short pause. Then the Emperor spoke again in a harsh, abrupt voice. "Find him, and either kill him, or ensure that he has no choice but to join us again. He too is a stand-master, and we cannot afford any uncertainty. I authorize you to use any means you deem necessary to accomplish this."
A strange expression came over the other's gray eyes. But it was gone in a second. The eyes were just as emotionless as before. "Yes, my Lord."
"And take this," the Tichon said as he raised his hand. Something small and silvery shot from the right arm-rest of his throne, floated through the air, and landed in Locke's outstretched palm. Locke looked at it carefully. It was a finely-carven silver pendant inscribed in a simple shape. It seemed to gleam and pulse with a faint blue light around the edges as Locke held it up against a torch's light with two fingers.
"That is a mirireid," Tichon said as he lowered his hand. "Wear it around your neck as you sleep if you wish to speak with me, and I will be able to seek you out on the Perenic thought-plane. Your master, Caylor Ga'artred, used to be able to commune with me on the plane without the aid of a mirireid, but then, he was a stand-master. You are not."
Locke slipped the thing into his pocket. "I shall wear it once a week, my Lord, and I will update you on my hunt then."
Inside however, Locke was shivering. The mirrireid felt unnaturally cold on his palm, and he didn't want to stare at the shape anyway. It was a simple design, but it seemed to grip his spine with cold, icy fingers. He didn't know why. He certainly did not relish putting it on.
"And Praetor Locke." The Emperor's voice was menacing. "You of all people should know that Caylor can be a formidable opponent when he has a mind to. He is a stand-master. Quite possibly the strongest of all the stand-masters. Do not underestimate him."
Locke bowed. "I shall pursue him myself."
"You are dismissed."
Locke turned on his heel and left the throne room. Outside, he nodded to the guards to shut the door, then walked off along the corridor. It was not until he climbed above the Emperor's personal floor that he allowed himself to relax slightly and let out the breathe of apprehension he had been holding. His centurion was waiting for him there, and he gave Locke a puzzled glance as the Praetor walked past while putting on his mask.
"Any new orders?" the Centurion said as he pushed off the wall he was leaning on, and followed Locke down the corridor to his new army.
"Yes," Locke said as he adjusted his cloak. "Let's go find Takeru Ishida."
Sheid was a boreal country. Located along the northern-most edge of Gaea, the rough, stony landscae was was covered alternatively with mixed forests of evergreen and deciduous trees, and wide swathes of tundra and plains. In millennia past, glaciers almost a mile thick had covered and scoured the entire land. Today, the ice had retreated to uncover a rugged and beautiful land; a land scattered with lakes so clear that the individual minnows could be discerned through water five meters in depth, dotted with hauntingly desolate moors covered with an ever-present blanket of ethereal mist, and criss-crossed by swift rivers that raced through immensely deep and wide U-shaped valleys. It was not uncommon for a traveler to spend days in the trackless wilderness before reaching the nearest civilized town, despite the fact that the land was relatively flat. On a good, clear day, it was said that if one stood on one of the glacial moraines that snaked across the nation, one could discern the snow-capped Ishidan mountains thrusting their peaks into the blue sky nearly five days' march away.
Tucked away in one of these boreal forests in the western corner of Sheid was a small, winding forest path. Running along the outskirts of a small trading colony of Palanthus, the path was of no interest to anyone, save to the few farmers who traveled along it to sell their crop at Palanthus, and those who wished to purchase supplies there. A small inn along the side of the path catered to such as these. Several open-air tables stood next to the timber building itself, half-full with travelers having lunch before they moved on.
A young man with longish blond hair smiled as the waitress approached with a tray. "Steamed bun, is that right?" the waitress said, nodding at the meal she carried in her hands.
"Thank you," the man said with a gracious dip of his head as he accepted the tray. "I heard that that was a specialty around these parts." The waitress blushed as she heard the compliment.
"Would you like something to drink sir?"
The blond man picked up his wooden chopsticks and snapped them into two halves so he could use them. "Just water will do fine, thank you."
The young waitress looked surprised. Nodding, she disappeared into the kitchen door's opening, and returned with a large pitcher of water and a small cup. Filling the cup, she placed the container beside the man's plate. Then she hesitated. "I'm on break and…do…do you mind if I eat here with you for awhile? All the servants' tables are full."
The man looked at her with his brilliant blue eyes. For a moment, he looked like he was about to say no. But eventually, he shrugged. "Of course," he said. He pulled out a seat beside him, and carefully moved his meal to make space on the small table.
"So…what's your name?" the waitress said as she sat down with her own tray of food.
The man smiled enigmatically. "Matt. Call me Matt. And yours?"
"Maia," the waitress answered with a slight smile. "What's a respectable young man like you doing in a dump like this?"
Matt looked over with an expression of mild surprise in his eyes. "Why do you say that?"
"Well…," Maia said as she shrugged. "You don't drink, that's something I haven't seen in awhile. Your clothes are too clean and fine for a farmer or a miner, yet too simple for a trader or a merchant. And you've got more manners than the lot of them put together," she added as she swept a hand to the other tables. Raucous, rough-shaven men joked and swirled beer as they laughed uproariously at their own jokes.
Matt tilted his head as he regarded them. Then he turned his attention back to his food. "I'm a traveler," he said. "I go where I will, where my heart leads me. If you must know, I'm headed for Akansata, up north. Sometimes," he added with a dry grin, "my travels take me to some unlikely places, that's all."
Maia nodded. "I see…," her eyes took on a dreamy look. "I've always wanted to go to Akansata. See the world a little, you know? I imagine that port cities are always full of excitement, with traders and merchants from halfway across the world…"
"That it is," Matt said as he nodded. "I've been to Halidan, along the eastern Ichijoujan coast. You won't believe some of the things I've seen there." Then he sobered a little. "Of course, that was almost five years ago. Before the war began in earnest. Nobody really goes there anymore unless they have an urgent reason. Too dangerous, you know."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, each absorbed in their own meal. Then the waitress put down her chopsticks. "What's the news along the front?" she said. "How's the war going? Backwater villages like us don't get to hear much news from far away. We know everything there is to know about local stuff, Shienar stuff, but beyond that, nothing."
Matt's face was a study in neutrality. "Why don't you go ask them?" he said, jerking his head at the laughing mob at the opposite end of the clearing. "I believe they're a traveling group, they might know more than I do."
Maia made a face as she looked at them. "I…don't quite feel up to it. Not them. You're much easier to talk with."
Matt turned and looked at them for a moment. Another round of harsh laughter rang out as the men slapped their thighs over a coarse joke. "Perhaps you're right…," he conceded.
"I don't really know that much though…," he cautioned as he took another bite out of his bun. "I think the war's going badly down towards the east, with Ichijouji. I don't travel down that end much, but I've heard stories from those that have. Seems that Ichijouji is losing badly." Matt said as he stared into his cup. "I also hear that Jakt refuses to send any aid, particularly since it'd mean having to go through the Saera desert, where the barricade is."
"What about Chironsala? It's close enough."
"My, you are a little behind out here, aren't you?" Matt said as he looked over. "Chironsala fell three months ago."
Matt motioned for quiet with his hand. "Lady, that's old news," he admonished. "Don't get so excited. Yes, it fell. They signed a 'peace' treaty almost twelve weeks ago. It basically amounts to a surrender, though the piece of paper never mentions the word."
"That bad huh?" Maia clucked in disapproval.
Matt shrugged as he sipped his water. "Everyone has too many problems of their own to bother with helping someone else. And they're all too stupid to realize that that's the only way they have a hope. Well, it's none of my business. I'm but a simple traveler."
"I hear that Emperor Ken is going to send another army to reinforce those at the front," Maia said hopefully. "And they say that this time, they'll drive Khaydarin back to Akeldama for good."
"That's what they've been saying for three years straight. Doesn't look like Khaydarin's going anywhere to me."
The waitress sighed. "That's what everyone's telling me. Ichijouji's getting attacked most of all, but they're trying. They're trying their hardest to hold the front. If they fall…" her voice trailed off. Maia did not have to articulate her thoughts. The fall of Ichijouji, the guardian of the eastern seashore, would open the doorway to the rest of the continent. The floodgates would open, and there would be nothing to stop Khaydarin's inevitable sweep.
Maia slipped into a glum silence, picking at her food. Then she looked up again, as if a thought had suddenly struck her. "Hey, you're a traveler, aren't you? Have you seen…them?"
The blond man looked at her askance. "'Them?'"
She waved her hand in irritation. "You know what I'm talking about. The stand-masters! Everyone's talking about them! So…have you seen them? The staff here is always speculating about what they're like…and no one seems to agree!"
"Truth is what you believe it to be," Matt said cryptically.
"So? Tell me!"
The blond man casually broke his steaming bun with his hands. "From a distance," he conceded. "A simple traveler doesn't get close enough for a good look, but I have seen Ken. And I believe I may have caught a glimpse of Cody Hida as well. Furtive young fellow. Didn't seem to want to be seen." Matt suddenly smiled mischievously. "They say the Lady Hikari's beauty is something to behold, and that her skills with the healing arts is something of a legend. I'll have to see that for myself when I have the chance."
"How about Takeru? They say he's the greatest of them all. The only true-blooded stand-master."
Matt's eyes became hard. "No," he said, a little too sharply. "I have not seen him. I may have a bad case of wanderlust, but I'm not crazy enough to go into Ishida just yet thank you. An honest man can get robbed ten times just by wandering in there."
But the waitress didn't seem to take offense. Instead, she babbled on excitedly. "So what does Yolei look like? They say she has violet hair. Can you imagine that? Violet hair! How about Cody? You said you…"
"Hey lady! More wine over here!"
Blushing, the waitress glanced apologetically at Matt. "Sorry, duty calls." Getting up, she dusted off her apron, took her tray to the kitchen, then reappeared again with a large jug of sake. Matt followed her for a moment with his blue eyes, then shrugged and concentrated on his own simple meal.
Leaning back on his bench, he took a sip from his cup of water, gazing thoughtfully at the leafy canopy above his head. It was spring, and the sunlight filtered down through a maze of crisscrossing leaves and branches, casting a mottled blue-green shade on the ground. The green trees swayed gently in the wind, shimmering with reflected sunlight. Truth, he thought to himself, is what one believes it to be. A bitter smile twisted his lips.
But what if one has no belief? What does he call 'truth' then? Six years of searching, and I really haven't found anything, have I?
Then Maia's scream snapped him out of his reverie. Sitting up, he twisted his head around, and his blue eyes narrowed as he saw a giant of a man, obviously having had one too many, upending chairs and tables as the waitress stood off to the side, begging him to stop.
"That much?!" the large, beefy man slurred. "Can't an honesht man get a drink anymore without being ch…sheated?"
"Please sir," Maia sobbed. "Please, stop it! You're destroying the tables!"
"Svok Stavik!! I jusht want shome deshcent sake," the man roared as he advanced on the waitress, swinging a broken bottle. "Inshtead, you give me pig…pig swill like this, and expect me to pay two ingots?!"
"Sir, kindly stop destroying the tables. And watch your tongue, there is a lady is in our midst."
The drunken man swung around to leer at Matt, who was standing behind him with his hands akimbo. A sneer spread across his face as he took in Matt's slender frame and young face. "An' whosh gonna shtop me?!"
Matt's blue eyes suddenly took on the brilliance of polished steel. "Sir, if you persist…"
The drunk's sneer turned into an ugly scowl as he lunged forward. "Shaddup! I will not be told off by some…some beardless kid!!" Stumbling forward, the man swung hard with a meaty fist at Matt's jaw.
An second later, the man was writhing on the ground, howling in agony as he cradled a broken wrist. Calmly, Matt reached down and took hold of the man's lapel. With a strength that belied his slim physique, he lifted the drunk bodily with one hand, walked to the entrance of the inn, and dumped him unceremoniously onto the bare path. As the man groaned in agony, Matt reached inside the drunk's pocket, took out a string of coins, and removed four.
"Clear off," Matt said as he turned on his heel and walked away. "You're ruining the décor."
As Matt re-entered the inn, Maia ran forward. "Oh sir, are…are you hurt? Did he injure you? Thank you, thank you so much…"
Matt shrugged off her concern with an irritated flick of his shoulders. "It would be an insult," he said derisively, "to be scratched by the likes of him. And before I forget," he tossed the waitress the four gold coins he had taken from the drunk, "this should cover the expenses of the sake and the table."
Maia was dumb-founded. "I…I don't know how to thank you! Are you, by any chance…a knight in disguise?"
Matt however, was not listening. He was gathering his cloak and sword from his own table, as if in preparation to leave, even though his meat bun was unfinished. Reaching inside his own pocket, he tossed the waitress another two silver coins. "This should cover the expenses of my meal," he said.
"I…I can't possibly accept this! After what you've done! What…what can I do to repay you?"
Matt looked at her, his gaze suddenly hard. "There is one thing…"
"You're the waitress of an inn that serves to a lot of travelers. You've probably heard a lot of gossip, right?"
The waitress shook her head. "Local gossip, yes. Things in Sheid, and maybe even northern Gaea, but anything farther than that, no."
Matt hoisted his pack, and retrieved his sword, buckling it onto his belt. Straightening up, he looked at the woman. "Takeru Ishida," he said slowly and clearly. "Have you…heard anything about him?"
"Takeru Ishida?!" the waitress repeated incredulously. "Emperor Takeru Ishida?! Of course! I just asked you about him! The rumour mill's positively buzzing about him, more than any other! But some of the things he's reputed to have done…they can't be real…"
"I have a feeling," Matt said with a wry grin. "that most of them actually are. But…." His tone turned serious. "Have you heard anything of where he is, right now?"
Maia hesitated, then responded slowly. "I…I heard a passing rumour that he was in Ishida, along the eastern provinces. Saldea, I believe. Or maybe I should say the kingdom of Saldea. Not a province anymore. That was about…," she closed her eyes. "About a month ago, I think." She opened her eyes and looked at Matt apologetically. "I'm sorry I can't be more precise…"
A strange glint came into Matt's eyes. "No no," he said. "You've been very helpful indeed…." With a last nod, he shifted his cloak, and turned left along the worn forest path, sidestepping the still-groaning drunk.
"Wait!" Maia called after him. "Akansata is to the right! That way takes you to the east!"
Matt's reply floated over the afternoon air. "I know. Thank you."
**May 3rd, A.S. 522. One month later**
In the predawn gray about the flat, rolling fields of Southern Ichijouji, everything seemed to be made of dark, shifting clouds of predawn mist. The formerly green and fertile fields of the province of Pean were white with frost despite the fact that it was almost two weeks into the month of April. Any other year, the fields would have been covered in tender blossoms and young green shoots. Here though, it was still cold. It was the coldest spring anyone could remember, as if winter refused to let go of its grip on the land. The ground was a scarcely recognizable gray waste scarred with hastily dug ruts and trenches, stained with blood, and littered with the still-smoking remains of fields, farms and bodies.
The Ichijoujan scout's breath steamed in front of his face as he guided his horse warily through the broken mess. His horse's hooves crunched on a light layer of snow on the ground, and he looked down. Snow? he thought. There shouldn't be snow by this time of year.
His horse whinnied softly in fear, and the scout jerked his gaze back up. The animal pranced slightly, but quieted again as the scout tightened his grip on the rein. His own hands were trembling with fear as he looked around furtively. After a moment, he urged his mount forward at a canter, hugging the trenches and hiding behind mounds of dirt. He avoided climbing the rolling hills at all costs, where he would be silhouetted against the light of the rising dawn to any watchful eyes that were scanning the field.
The clouds had obscured the stars hours ago. All the familiar landmarks that he had counted on to guide him were gone, or were mangled beyond recognition. He was no longer sure of his direction as he plodded onwards, hoping desperately to find a friendly camp before he stumbled into the enemy lines. It had not been like this two weeks ago when he'd left. Either he was more lost than he had thought, or he should still be leading his horse through the fields of Paen. Not this battle-scarred field of frozen earth…
He was heedless of the eyes that tracked his progress across the battlefield. As he passed a rocky outcrop, dark shapes seemed to rise out of the ground like silent wraiths. The wraiths seemed to watch the scout for a moment longer before they disappeared back into the ground, as swiftly and silently as they had risen.
Suddenly, the scout was aware of black shapes emerging out of the darkness with breathtaking suddenness in front of him. His horse rolled its eyes in fear, and turned around. More cloaked fighters were rising out of the ground behind him. The faint starlight gleamed off the steel tips of arrows as several of them drew back their bows. "Who are you," a low voice called out. "And what is your business here? If you run, you will be shot. Answer, and answer truly!"
The man gulped his fear down. He did not know whether this band of fighters were the enemy's, or his own. Best to tell the truth. If that was the wrong answer, it would be better to die with honour. "Angborn Turion, a soldier of Ichijouji," he answered clearly. "A scout from the Seventh Company, with an urgent message for the Emperor."
There was a long silence. The rider closed his eyes, waiting for arrows to pierce him.
"Sable is the black night of the Seihad," the voice said abruptly.
The scout opened his eyes as a rush of relief flooded through him. "But glorious is the morning of the Tenken."
Immediately, the black-robed fighters around him relaxed their bowstrings and dropped their arms. A single man stepped forward, holding his hands up in peace. "Your pardon friend," the man said he brushed his hood back from his face. "I thought you were a Khaydarin spy."
The scout looked around him. In the dim light, the other man he could not discern much of the man's features even with the hood down, but he could see that he wore a familiar dark green cloak with the silver crest of Ichijouji on his left breast. The three silver braids hanging from his crest denoted him to be a Captain in rank. But the men he commanded…
They were clad in dark brown, and there was no gleam of any jewelry or insignias of rank on them. Their cloaks were of strange cut, but dyed so that it blended into any background, be it grass, desert, rock or snow. Indeed, as the scout struggled to focus his eyes on them, they seemed to shimmer in and out of sight. They seemed taller than the Captain, and their eyes gleamed light grey in the dim morning light. "Surely…," the scout said as he gazed upon the nearest fighter, "you are not Ichijoujan…"
The fighter smiled grimly as he bowed. "Indeed not. We are Taelidani, come to aid Ichijouji in their time of need. Blessed greetings to you, sen-brother, and pardon our caution."
"This is not the time nor the place," another fighter hissed. "Talin, a blind gnat could spot us a mile away. We must get back to our lines."
Talin smiled apologetically up at Angborn. "My men are right," he said quietly. "We must get you away from here. We are not safe." He inclined his head, and immediately three Taelidani disappeared into the darkness, spreading out in three directions as they looked for hidden enemies. Two fighters took hold of the scout's horse. "Come," the Captain said to Angborn. "We must go quickly."
They set off quickly, keeping to what cover there was in this open country. As they traveled, Angborn spoke softly to the Captain. "Are there enemies about?"
"Of course there are," Talin said as he shot Angborn a puzzled glance. "You didn't know?"
"I thought I was still in Ichijouji."
Talin looked startled, then began to chuckle. "You, my friend," he said as he turned back, "have stumbled into the middle of the two battle lines. See that glow over yonder?"
"I see it."
"That's from the watchfires of the Khaydarin line. They're scarcely three miles as the crow flies from where we stand." Turning, the Captain pointed North. "And that's where we're camped. We've retreated to the Aides wall."
Angborn felt himself turn cold. "You abandoned the Paen province? So I'm in the middle of the neutral zone? I thought this was still Ichijoujan farmland. The battle lines were at least ten miles off two weeks ago when I left."
"You must have missed our messengers when you came," Talin said as he followed his Taelidani fighters through a deep rutted trench. "We've lost a lot of ground since then. We had to resort to burning our own fields each time we retreated, and destroying our own walls with barrels of gunpowder." He looked disgusted as he scraped at some of the ashes on the ground. "It'll take years to rebuild what we've put torch to. Better to destroy it though, than to let all that food fall in the enemy's hands."
"I didn't know it was that bad."
"They took two walls in as many months." Talin said grimly. "At this rate, they'll be at Halidan in three more months." He paused for awhile as he led the scout down a steep bank. "Yesterday, we fought our largest battle yet. Two hundred dead, three hundred wounded." The Captain sighed. "Our strength is less than five thousand now, all told. By our best estimates, they number twice that."
There was a silence as they walked. Then Talin looked up at the scout. "What news of the Seventh?"
The scout shook his head. "My news is for the Emperor only. What he does with that news is then his business."
The gleam of hope in Talin's eyes faded. "I see," he answered neutrally. Then was silent again.
Soon, the Aides wall came into sight. A high-ridged wall stretched across the land like a giant snake, studded with tall watch-towers every five kilometers. The Ichijoujan nation was defended by a series of walls that separated the outer provinces from the inner ones, each spaced three or so days' march from one another. None but the outer wall stretched across the entire Ichijoujan perimeter, but the inner ones blocked off all the major roads for miles around. Nestled one among the other like concentric semi-circles, the network of walls and forts, a relic from the Aeon of Strife, had been pressed into service again as an effective defense against any enemy.
On this stretch of the wall, a faint glow from the watch-fires showed the position of the Ichijoujan camp. As they drew closer, Angborn began to make out many hastily dug trenches filled with sharpened wooden stakes in staggered rows every hundred meters out from the wall. Column upon column of tents were spaced evenly throughout the watch fires, and sentinels stood guard on the perimeter. Suddenly, Talin held out a hand, and the company halted. The three Taelidani that had vanished reappeared again just as silently as they had left. Ahead, one of the fighters cupped his hands to his mouth and let loose the low howl of a coyote.
A moment later, there was a quiet call of a grassland eagle from the lines in front. The signal had been recognized. It was safe to go on. The company hurried forward. Talin led them along the wall for another few minutes until they came upon a small, iron-cast gate set into the wall. As they reached it, it opened of its own accord, and they slipped in as quickly as possible. There were four sentries on the wall above the gate, and another two that closed the door behind the scouting party. One of the sentries nodded to Talin. "Anything out there, Captain? You're back earlier than usual."
"Quiet as a tomb," Talin answered with a wry grin. "If you'll pardon the expression. I did find something interesting though."
Another sentry brought his torch closer to Angborn's face doubtfully. "You mean this fellow? Is he safe?"
"Take a closer look Sana," Talin said as he smiled. "He's wearing an Ichijoujan uniform. What do you think?"
Sana grunted. "Does he know the password?"
"He knows the creed," Talin said firmly. "Good enough for me. Besides, he has news of the Seventh."
"Of the Seventh!" Sana exclaimed. "Are they coming?"
Angborn shook his head again as he dismounted and was about to answer when Talin cut in sharply. "Back to your post, soldier, and mind your own business. This fellow's news is for the Emperor's ears only."
Sana subsided. Angborn looked closer. In the torchlight, the man looked exhausted. There was a rough stubble on his cheek as if he had not shaven for many days, and his face and clothes were streaked with dirt. Still, as he turned to Angborn, his bow was courteous. "Forgive me, friend."
"Sen-brother," one of the Taelidani said. Angborn jumped as he whirled around to see the Taelidani right behind him. "You must be wearied from your journey. Would you like to know where the food and the tent-spaces are? Others will care for your horse."
Angborn tried to calm his racing heart. The Taelidani unnerved him. It was not that he disliked them or anything. It was just that they moved so silently that they often managed to sneak up on you even if they weren't trying. It was a disquieting habit, and Angborn thanked his lucky stars that he would never have to fight against them. At least with a Khaydarin cloak, the enemy had to uncloak before he struck. With Taelidani, you'd probably never know what hit you. He shook his head. "Captain Talin," he said urgently. "I must deliver my message to the Emperor immediately. If he is asleep, then we must wake him. This cannot wait."
"You needn't worry about that, my friend," Talin said in return. He nodded to his men, and his band of ten disbanded. "The Emperor doesn't seem to sleep," he continued. "We don't know how he does it, but he's always there, in the thick of it. And he never seems to get tired. Perhaps stand-masters don't have to sleep. This way."
Angborn looked around as Talin led him through the camp. Behind the wall, the atmosphere in the Ichijoujan camp was one of weary vigilance. In the faint light of the morning, the men looked pale and drawn, either from lack of food, weariness, or both. Several of them were sporting stained bandages that covered minor wounds. The formerly clean, neat green uniforms were soiled with dark mud or bloodstains. Beside a large, gray tent, Angborn could see mounds of dirt arranged neatly into dozens of long rows. At the head of the field of mounds, there was a large, crude wooden cross driven into the ground. Angborn averted his eyes and shivered as he passed.
Graves. The mounds were all graves. There must have been hundreds of them…
Yet there was order. Sentries were posted along the wall every hundred meters in either direction for as far as the scout's eye could see, and blazing fire-torches were planted almost two hundred meters out from the wall so that no enemy could approach unseen. Patrols walked around the grounds wearily, but with purpose and direction. Wherever Angborn looked, he could not see any panic or fear in men's eyes, merely a grim, burning determination to hold the wall for as long as possible. And if it was not possible, then to hold it until they died. As the scout passed, men raised their eyes hopefully. "The Seventh," they whispered amongst themselves. "Perhaps the Seventh has come at last…"
Angborn ignored them and followed Talin through the camp until they came at length to an unadorned white tent pitched in the middle of it. Two guards stood on either side of the entrance, bearing long silver spears. Talin spoke quickly with one of them as Angborn waited impatiently. At length, one of the guards nodded and went in.
Talin and Angborn stood together in front of the tent silently as they waited, their breath steaming in the cold morning air. Angborn wrapped his cloak tightly about himself, and his lips compressed into a bloodless line as he tried to control his impatience. At length, the guard came back out. He jerked his head in. "The Emperor will see you now. Captain Talin, you are to stay here until the Emperor calls you."
Angborn exchanged glances with Talin. Talin shrugged, and motioned at the entrance. Taking a deep breath, Angborn lifted the flap of his Emperor's tent and stepped in.
Emperor Ken was standing in the middle of the tent, lighting a small lantern hanging from the ceiling. Angborn immediately knelt on his left knee, pressing the knuckles of his right hand on the ground. The Emperor looked down from his lantern. "You may rise," he said softly. "There is no need for these formalities in times of war."
Angborn straightened up slowly and looked into his Emperor's face. Ken was now twenty-two. He was taller now, taller than most men, yet his frame was willowy, light and agile. His dark hair, cut slightly shorter over the years, brushed his jaw-line as he moved. In the back, a small, neat ponytail that stretched to the middle of his back was neatly tied with a braided leather strap. His steel-blue eyes shone with a subdued, yet strangely intense light. When he moved, the dark green cloak that he wore seemed to ripple and float around him, so that it was all but impossible to tell where his body was beneath the shifting fabric. The stylized silver symbol of Ichijouji attached to his right breast, and the five golden strips hanging from the pin denoted his rank to be Lord-Captain. That was it. He did not wear his crown, nor did he carry his scepter, or any other sign of his Royalty. He didn't need it. His presence seemed to fill the tent as completely as the light from the lantern penetrated the darkness.
Right now, those steel blue eyes were fixed on Angborn's face. "What is your name?" Ken said at length. "I do not believe we have met."
Angborn was startled. What use did an Emperor have for the names of his soldiers? "Angborn Turion sir," he said truthfully. "Scout from the fifth contingent of the Seventh Company."
"Angborn…." Ken seemed to muse on the name. "I will remember that. From the Seventh?" Ken looked up, drilling the man with a sharp glance. "I sent off word for help from the Seventh two weeks ago. What news of the Seventh?"
Angborn squared his shoulders, and fixed his gaze on a point on the tent wall above Ken's left shoulder. "The Seventh was ambushed sire," he said. "The Lord-Captain Farnir was slain, along with fifty and two hundred of his men. Only five hundred made it back to the city of Gladen. There is another one hundred unaccounted for. Either captured or fled. Captain Endrin, second to Lord-Captain Farnir does not know, and he sent me ere he could find out."
A sharp hiss escaped from Ken's lips. "Ambushed?!" he said. "Are you telling me that the entire Seventh Company is gone?!"
Angborn nodded unhappily. "The Sixth and the Fifth are holding the western front, and Captain Endrin did not dare withdraw either to the southern front. The Captain is prepared to accept any responsibility for his refusal to send further reinforcements after the ambush of the Seventh."
Ken glared at Angborn. "How?" he demanded sharply. "Were you there? How was it done?"
Angborn nodded again. "I was there," he said. "One of the lucky five hundreds that escaped."
"The Lord-Captain Farnir was not expecting resistance that deep in Ichijoujan territory. He sacrificed caution for speed, and opted to take the quickest route: through the road in the southern forests. The path was so narrow that the Seventh was stretched out into a line almost three miles in length. When we came round the Eastern bend, the enemy came out of the West and ambushed us along our flank. Almost a third of our strength fell from the initial hail of arrows."
"And what is Captain Endrin's opinion?" Ken said. "How did the enemy manage to ambush Farnir's flank? I thought he was a competent man!"
"There is no question that they knew we were coming, my Lord," Angborn said vehemently. "Lord-Captain Farnir could not have done anything about it."
Ken's face was tight and drawn with worry, even fear. "Cloaks…," he said quietly. "They must have got past our lines somehow…. That's not surprising. Indeed, I was expecting it. But how did they know?"
"I didn't send for help until two weeks ago," Ken said as he started pacing around the narrow confines of his tent. "Even I didn't know that the Seventh was going to be taking this journey until fourteen days ago. So how did they know where to ambush us?"
He drilled Angborn with another sharp glance. "I find it hard to believe that they could have sneaked so many troops past our lines that they can cover my entire country so well as to ambush any company that moves. Perhaps Farnir was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
"They knew we were coming sire," Angborn said firmly. "Lord-Captain Farnir would not have fallen into a hastily made ambush."
"Then how?! When did Lord-Captain Farnir receive my message?"
"Eleven days ago," Angborn said promptly. "He took three more days to gather his army, and set out at once. Seven days ago, he was ambushed and slain."
"Four days," Ken murmured. "Somehow, the enemy knew of our plans within four days. No, less than that. It would have taken more than a day to get that cloaked army into place. Two days then."
"Two days, sire?!" Angborn burst out. When Ken turned his steel-blue gaze on him again, he subsided a little, but he didn't stop. "Two days? Sire, begging your pardon, but no army can move that fast."
"No," Ken said as he held Angborn's gaze. "I agree with you, and I'm sure Captain Endrin agrees as well. No army, not even a Khaydarin army, can move that fast with such little notice."
Ken took a deep breath, and put a hand to his temple as if he was in pain. "Then how did they do it?" he muttered. "Spies perhaps? But how could they have gotten so close to Gladen, indeed, right into the chambers of Lord-Captain Farnir to learn the nature of his orders?"
Angborn shifted uneasily. There was only one possibility left, and it was only a matter of time before the Emperor saw it himself. Finally, Ken looked up again. "Traitors…," he said flatly as he answered his own question. "There are traitors in our midst."
Angborn nodded. "It is possible sire…. Many of our soldiers are unaccounted for. Any one of them may have deserted with the Khaydarin army that ambushed us."
"No, no, it can't be them," Ken said quickly. "In battle, traitors would be killed along with true Ichijoujan soldiers. They would not want to offer the enemy the very means to destroy them. Besides, soldiers would not learn of Lord-Captain Farnir's plans to travel through the Southern Forest until he had set out, at which point it would be too late." He rubbed his forehead. "Who could have had close contact with Lord-Captain Farnir before he departed?"
Angborn frowned as he thought back. "It could have been anyone sir," he said. "Anyone of sufficiently high rank. I am only a mere scout. I have no dealings in this matter."
Ken sighed as he rubbed his face. "So the enemy's attack drives home in the fastness of my own realm," he murmured to himself. "My armies can no longer travel safely even in their own territory." He laughed mirthlessly. "And there is a traitor in our midst! A traitor!"
Angborn said nothing, but he gazed uneasily at his feet. When Ken finally spoke again, his voice was calmer, as if he had mastered the sudden outburst of despair. "Soldier Angborn," he said, "do you have anything else to report?"
"No, my Lord. That was my message, and I have delivered it."
"Then you may leave me. I'm sure you are wearied from your long journey. You may find food from the cook tent, and you may take what rest you may before the morning dawns fully."
"Thank you sire," Angborn said as he retreated from the tent gratefully. After the scout had left, Ken sat down wearily on his small pallet, and rearranged the cloak about him. He rubbed his face wearily. "Send in Captain Talin," he called out.
There was a rustle as the tent flap was drawn aside again, and Talin stepped in. Standing at ease, he waited respectfully until Ken had taken his hands away from his face and looked up. "So," Ken said as he looked at his Captain, "did you hear?"
"No, my Lord," Talin said. "But I can speculate. The Seventh is not coming?"
"No," Ken said heavily. "Not coming."
Talin said nothing. His expression did not change, but his shoulders slumped tiredly. "I shall send out messengers at once, my Lord, for more aid," he said. "Perhaps Fan-Tzu will be more likely to listen to us in light of our desperate need…"
"They have already sent a company of soldiers," Ken muttered. "And they are being used elsewhere. Besides, any troops they send will arrive too late." He looked up. "Talin, I want you to prepare the men for a retreat. Saddle the horses and gather the soldiers. Send out messengers on swift horses to recall the sentries in the lookout towers on both sides. We break camp as soon as morning dawns fully. We're retreating from the Aides wall."
Talin frowned. "Again, my Lord?"
"Yes, Talin, again." Ken snapped angrily. "Is that clear?"
Talin's back stiffened. "Perfectly, my Lord."
Ken stared at him for a moment longer, then sighed. With a wave of his hand, he motioned for Talin to stand at ease. "I apologize my friend, but I am weary. Will you forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive."
The lantern flickered. Ken stared at it was he went on. "I shall split the army into two," he said. "I shall lead one half, and you shall lead the other. Head for Gladen, for that is where we shall make our next stand. Do not tell me the path that you intend to take to Gladen, and I will not tell you mine. Do your own navigating, and take as random a path as possible so that no-one in your army knows where you're going until they're there."
"You fear spies?" Talin said grimly.
"Traitors, yes. And invisible armies," Ken said.
Captain and Lord-Captain stared at one another for a long moment. Then Talin nodded. "I am honoured, my Lord. Your trust has not been misplaced, for I am no traitor. Shall I burn the fields I pass, sire?"
"Yes," Ken said quietly. "Burn the fields."
"Shall I spread salt?"
Ken looked at Talin for a long moment before answering. When he did, his voice was fierce. "No," he said firmly.
"Do not spread salt. We'll be back. Count on it."
** Author's notes: Yeah…do you begin to see how I seem to have skipped a lot of stuff. This is exactly like in "Out of the Ashes" where I just leap in and write a story while taking a lot of stuff for granted. There are huge holes in the plot where I write about things as if they've been set up and introduced before already. Reason: if I were to write about all the events that transpired during those six years, I would have to write around six novels, each as long as this one. I don't have the time, nor the patience, so I have to resort to this skipping method. Hope you don't mind…