Lieutenant-commander Trask was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot under the collar as he eyed up the competition. He had gone to great lengths to ensure that his entourage had marched in impeccable formation, their banners and armour shining in the light of the morning sun, their voices loud and clear as they sang out their marching songs to strike fear into the hearts of the beasts that awaited them here. No man of his would need to hold their head in shame after such a showing. And yet, the beasts had not risen to challenge them in quite the manner he had expected. He had known well that Goblins, Hobgoblins, Lizardmen, Orcs and Ogres filled the land, the woods, the hills, the mountains, the swamps, every nook and cranny, even the houses of good folk living in fear of their oppressors sometimes were made homes to these foul fiends, and he had expected them to stand here before him in what passed for a formation among their savage kind.
What he hadn’t expected was the festival. There were tents erected all over the area around the lake, with maypoles and stalls and braziers and being prepared, ribbons of various colours being hung from the trees and boats going out to the lake with bonfires built on top of rafts in tow. The beasts, and among them regular men and women no doubt held in some form of slavery, were busy at work, sparing the glorious troops that had arrived not a glance.
“Looks like Midsummer here” Knight Captain Gruenwald pointed out.
“Indeed sir. Without a doubt they wish to throw us off our game and ambush us” Trask replied, hoping his astute observation would be rewarded with praise.
“No, they’re just planning to throw the troops a party while we’re talking with the big shots” Gruenwald shot him down.
“No man of ours would ever partake of revelries with beasts!” Trask said, banging his breastplate with bravado.
“I reckon all of them will once the cooking starts and the smell of some succulent pork or smoked herring gets into their noses. These are simple people but they know how to please a man’s senses…” Gruenwald trailed off, noticed his second-in-command’s look and hastened to add “…not that I know much of such things”
Trask continued to eye up his superior with disapproval. Was this the truth of the matter then? The good captain who had gone to negotiate with the beasts so many times and returned with so few losses had all along been in congress with them? This would not go unpunished…
“Hey mister, you want a flower?” a voice asked from somewhere around the knees of his horse and Trask was alarmed. What new villainy was this? An ambush?
Looking down he saw a little girl with flowers in her hair and a bouquet in her hands. Upon closer inspection the child’s hands, feet, ears and tail betrayed her as an ungodly abomination, causing Trask to pull out his sword.
“Stand thee back lest I slay thee!” he cried out, but before he could get a decent swing going Gruenwald caught his arm and yanked him out of his saddle, dropping him on the ground. His horse snorted with what could be considered amusement at this development.
“I’ll take one dear” Gruenwald said, and the girl handed him a daffodil before skipping off, seemingly completely unfazed by the threat on her life that the Lieutenant-commander had posed her.
“That there was a Troll child, Lieutenant. She was no danger to us. I advice you to keep your sword sheathed during our stay here lest you arouse the Lizards overmuch” the Knight Captain rebuked him as Trask climbed back in the saddle, humiliated before his troops.
“They’ll think us weak, sir”
“How can you say that? I’ve personally overseen the drills of these men! They can…”
“They can march in formation, keep in step and sing silly songs. What they can’t do is spend all day in combat and still enjoy themselves while doing it”
Trask spat on the ground.
“These men are brave and faithful! They have said their prayers en masse every morning and every evening!”
“And their ability to recite words they’ve been taught does them credit. I still would not tempt fate with this lot, so please behave yourself. This is a diplomatic mission, not a military conquest” Gruenwald concluded and ordered the troops to continue along at a leisurely pace to a large field adjacent to the lake and the festivity preparations. The men were instructed to set up camp here and the actual diplomatic entourage convened in the command tent.
“Since I’ve been here before, I suppose I need to give you some last-minute advice” Knight Captain Gruenwald began, pacing before the chosen emissaries. “As you know we are here strictly to observe the meeting, we have no agenda of our own to bring to the table. As such we have no need to interfere with anything that happens. It would be for the best if we all just remain quiet and polite throughout the talks” he concluded.
Ambassador van Coop nodded his affirmation. He hoped the lack of responsibilities would lead directly to his time spent at the buffet increasing and he twirled his moustache in anticipation. As expected by absolutely everyone however, Trask had something to say.
“I disagree, sir. We should take this chance to assert ourselves. The Order of Pearly Whites is a name to be feared among monsters, heretics and heathens. What better chance have we to remind them of our might than here and now?”
All heads shook themselves at this outburst and with a sigh Gruenwald responded.
“If we make ourselves a nuisance now, it will reflect badly on our futures”
“Should we so fear them that we can’t stand tall and proud in their midst?” Trask continued to argue.
Van Coop butted in.
“If indeed Lieutenant-commander Trask finds the meeting to be of such singular importance to him, perhaps the lads and I shall excuse ourselves of it altogether?”
Gruenwald was taken aback by this. Did they intend to leave him alone with Trask? The traitors!
“Van Coop is right, this is not a place for soft men to mince words! I alone am sufficient to show these fiends the measure of a man!” Trask exclaimed. There were some chuckles at his expense, after which Gruenwald resigned himself to the unpleasant task that lay before him.
“Fine then. It’s you and me, Lieutenant-commander. Let the rest enjoy themselves while we sit quietly and listen politely” he said, slapping Trask on the shoulder. “Let’s be off then and get it over with”
The meeting was held on an island in the middle of the lake and the two knights took a boat rowed by a local man there. The elderly peasant kept giggling at some joke neither knight had heard and with a thick and impenetrable accent kept referring to such things as he thought were interesting and amusing, none of which they understood. They arrived at the island and the knights left the boat, thanking for the fare with curt nods.
While small, the island had an impressive array of moss-covered rock formations and pine trees growing on it, giving it a look that simply cried out “ancient”. The feeling of cheer over by the shores they had come from was barely felt here and it was as if the air itself had grown colder.
“Up we go” Gruenwald said, leading the way uphill and into the woods where menhirs stood in the ample spaces between the sparse pines.
“The quiet is unsettling. Shouldn’t there be guards?” Trask asked.
“Against what? These people are not threatened by anything” Gruenwald replied.
They continued to walk in silence until they came to the palace. It was old Elven make, with pillars for walls and a series of domes for a ceiling. It was clearly not meant for inhabitation especially during the winter, but it would serve the purpose it had for now. Entering the premises Trask noticed the majority of the structure was underground, built into the rock on in rows like an amphitheatre. There was already a convergence of huddled, robed figures present.
“What ho, wizards!” Gruenwald greeted them with a happy shout as if they were long-lost friends while Trask took hold of his sword in preparation for battle. You could never trust a wizard.
One of the figures approached them while stroking his beard.
“Only two of you?” he asked, squinting his eyes as if there might’ve been more but he simply couldn’t see them.
“Just the two of us Ted” Gruenwald confessed. “We’re looking to let Rhea know that our actual diplomats opted out this time”
The wizard called Ted nodded and pointed with a bony finger into a direction, a flash of orange light shot out of the tip to form an arrow.
“You’ll find her in yonder chamber, discussing something only women understand”
“Thank you Ted” Gruenwald thanked him and led his second-in-command toward the underground chamber. As they approached the doorway they heard two voices on the inside, both female but one echoing as if coming from the bottom of a well.
“Maybe we could try it in magenta” the echoing voice said.
“Oh you are simply tearing me apart Lisa!” the might Dragon exclaimed just when Gruenwald knocked on the door frame, causing her to dart her head towards him.
“Oh, hi Mark!” she said, smiling. So this was the great Black Dragon Rhea, Queen of the Hordes, Trask thought. Behind her was a crystal ball within which swirled an ethereal mist and the pale face of another woman, the source of the echoing voice no doubt. With a wave of her hand the Dragon dismissed the apparition and strode up to the knights, her tail swinging behind her, and with every step of her approach the difference between her size and the size of the humans became more apparent. Trask swallowed. He was certain he couldn’t overwhelm such a creature in combat. And to his horror he saw that she had her eyes on him.
“So this is the waste of space you brought with you?” the Dragon hissed, looking directly into Trask’s eyes but directing her words to Gruenwald. “You like to threaten children, do you?”
This last comment had been directed to him after all, and Trask realized a response was expected of him. He would let this beast know what a righteous man of God and Country was and how he could not be intimidated.
“N-no…” he mumbled, looking at his feet.
Rhea lowered herself so her eyes were at level with his.
“You draw a sword on a child ever again and I will tear your spine out” she said.
Trask fell on his ass, his legs no longer carrying him.
“Well anyway how have you been?” Rhea asked Gruenwald.
“Can’t complain, can’t complain. It’s so hard to find good help these days though” the Captain said, nodding to Trask who was trying to get up.
“Hmph. At least he didn’t try to attack me like the last one” the Dragon conceded.
“Ah yes, Sir Peter was not gifted with tact, grace of wisdom” Gruenwald remembered the poor fool.
“So did you want something?”
“Ah, yes. The, uhh, ambassador and his aides have requested that they be excused from the meeting entirely” Gruenwald explained.
“Oh? I would’ve thought they’d be interested in the future of the realm” Rhea said, rolling her eyes.
“They don’t feel the need to keep up appearances, so it’s the festival for them”
“The sooner we may join them the better. You’re still here though?”
“Yes, the greenhorn here insists on seeing what goes on in these meetings so I need to make sure he doesn’t make an ass of himself”
Rhea turned her gaze on the wavering Trask again.
“You keep your tongue in check or we’ll put it to use someplace” she warned him. Trask took this cryptic threat to mean they intended to cut his tongue off, and he had no reason to doubt it had been said in all seriousness. Deciding it was prudent to remain quiet he merely nodded.
“Good. You find yourselves some corner where you don’t get in the way now; I need to decide what colour of armour my daughter will get for her birthday”
“As you wish” Gruenwald said with a bow and dragged Trask out. As soon as he felt they were outside of earshot Trask began to assert himself.
“That went horribly. If we had chosen to strike her down then and there, we could’ve…”
“Died before we knew it and you know that’s how it would’ve gone. Come on, we’ll sit up there” Gruenwald said, and led him to the highest row of the amphitheatre.
The two knights sat down and looked as the wizards began to swing their arms around and hum to open holes into the air, through which entourages of monsters stepped out.
“By God almighty” Trask exclaimed.
“I… I never knew they were so…”
“So heinous!” Trask corrected, blushing. Before his eyes were several feminine figures each wearing more revealing clothing than the last. There was a woman who appeared quite like a human in a black dress with a high collar and a low neckline, leaving her cleavage exposed. When she smiled she revealed fangs that outed her as a Vampire. Next to her was a voluptuous woman in a dress that left her shoulders bare and was cut so that her legs were exposed as she walked, her pale skin outing her as a Wight. An ebony-skinned, pointy-eared woman in a leather corset, boots and gloves was a Dark Elf and a purple snake wearing hardly anything but jewellery was the foreign beast called an Apophis. Each and every one of these was accompanied by a male companion dressed in what went well with the outfit of the beasts, with the Dark Elf and Apophis both accompanied by men wearing nothing but loincloths and collars, leashed from their necks leading to the arms of their captors. Other companions to these she-devils were also present, in the case of the Vampire it was a young woman dressed quite conservatively but carrying two swords on her back, in the case of the Wights it was two naked women with sharp teeth and long tongues drooling at the sight of any man they happened to see, in the case of the Dark Elf it was two others of her kind, only younger than herself, and in the case of the Apophis it was a shambling woman covered from head-to-toe in bandages.
“Surely they plot the demise of all mankind” Trask whispered.
“Or a birthday party” Gruenwald suggested.
“Nevermind, there’s more”
And indeed there were more. The wizards opened portals that issued forth Werewolves, Demons, Orcs of many shapes and sizes, regular Elves, women in pointy hats that he assumed were witches and sorceresses and even a blue-skinned Giant carrying barrels of ale on her belt. The seats below the two knights were slowly but surely filled out by Monsters and men and their unholy offspring, and soon the space was filled also with happy chatter as the visitors all greeted one another as old friends, some very fond of one another and some seemingly holding grudges, but all the same there was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that Trask had tried to instil into his soldiers with drills and marching practice.
Eventually the Dragon herself emerged, with a short bearded man by his side.
“Is that him?” Trask asked with a hushed whisper.
“Willis the Traitor, the worst piece of human trash since Steve the Traitor”
“Oh yeah, that’s him” Gruenwald agreed, waving at the man who responded in kind.
The crowd became silent then as Rhea spread her wings and arms out. After letting them sit in silence for a moment she began to speak.
“Dear friends, I am glad to see you have turned out in such numbers. It has been too long since we all last gathered together like this…”
“But we just met twice last month” a cranky old wizard pointed out to the amusement of the general assembly.
“And yet my statement stands, it has been too long since we all gathered like this, for twice last month we came together to celebrate birthdays, but neither of those was the birthday of my first born, my dear little Olivia” Rhea continued. “And as queen of you all…”
“Democracy and liberty for all!” the Apophis screamed out, causing more laughter in the crowd.
“…queen of you all, I am demanding appropriate tribute. So let’s make sure we all coordinate our gifts and don’t get her two of the same, hm?”
Trask couldn’t believe his ears. Birthday celebration? Gifts? This was making no sense at all. Unless… of course! It was all sorcery! The wizards had addled his brain by some means and now he was hearing the heinous, venomous words of these beasts as something innocent, that must be it! And it even explained how Knight Captain Gruenwald had come to associate with them! Sorcery and hexes and curses! And what defence against them had he but the shield of faith?
“So how about a puppy?” asked a Werewolf, holding up the cub of a regular wolf in her arms. “Everyone loves puppies”
“Eugh, I don’t want any animals making a mess in my home” the Dragon shot down the suggestion, making the Werewolf’s ears droop until her husband scratched her behind them, which caused her tail to wag happily, the episode completely forgotten.
“Then how about a kitten? Cats are very clean animals” suggested a Witch, removing her hat to reveal a fat black cat sleeping on her head. “This one is pregnant right now” she added.
“Cats are part of the systematic oppression of the common folk” the Apophis replied.
“I beg your pardon?” the Witch asked.
“Who owns cats? The royalty. What do they call cats? Divine. Religion and royalty, plotting together to oppress the commoners. And how do they do it? They release rats into the grain, then sell people cats to deal with them. Wake up, people!”
“…thank you Alessa” Rhea stopped the tirade. “So we’ll put cats in the ‘maybe’ pile, dear?”
Willis nodded and wrote down “kitty” on to the scroll he was holding.
“A Familiar is always handy” pointed out another woman with a pointy hat.
“Ollie doesn’t actually know any magic though” Willis responded.
“Then just use a command rod, easy-peasy”
“You’d know all about rods, wouldn’t you Thelassea?”
“What was that squirt?”
“You heard me you swamp hag!”
“That’s enough of that” Rhea interrupted the arguing witches and the table was once more open for suggestions.
“I recently purchased a quaint series of booklets about exercise, the flow of internal energy in the body and martial arts techniques, I’m sure copies could serve her well when she gets older” a Wight suggested.
“Exercise huh? I’m sure YOU’D need it Ilyanka” a Vampire’s venomous words struck out.
“Wag your tongue all you wish Kyrie, I’m full of serenity and tranquillity” the Wight called Ilyanka pointed out.
“Lot firmer around the bottom too” her husband added.
“I hardly think Ollie needs to learn martial arts, her natural strength will in time grow beyond that of most mortals” Rhea chimed in.
“Indeed! Martial arts are a silly practice for those with enough power to overwhelm anything with brute force. May I suggest a crossbow? The finesse of projectile weapons…” Kyrie began, but was interrupted.
“Projectiles? You just love the idea of long shafts and penetration!” Ilyanka complained.
“It is as she says! Mother’s mind is in the gutter!” one of the Vampire’s daughters confirmed.
“Gabriella will you shut up?” she snapped at her.
“You’re not the boss of me! I’m moving out and joining The Order!”
Trask’s interest was piqued. The child of the Vampire wished to become a righteous woman? Was this some new sorcery concocted specifically to toy with him?
“Crossbow’s a coward’s weapon the Frost Giant rumbled, her husband with the fearsome beard in two braids nodding and holding aloft a sword and a battle axe.
“An ax is a man’s weapon, for a woman a sword is well enough” he said, “and an Ulfbehrt is as good as they come”
“I beg to differ, the katana are the sharpest swords in existence, Zipangu steel is folded over…” a know-it-all wizard began but was silenced with an angry grimace from the Giant. Trask would’ve liked to hear what he had to say though, so he raised his voice.
“Go on and finish that thought my good man, it’s a topic that warrants some consideration” he said, before realizing he had opened his mouth at all. For an awkward moment all heads in the room turned to stare at him, then back at the wizard.
“Well you see I have heard that they take the steel and fold it in such a manner that it, the thing about it is that, well see I’m not a metallurgist but…” he mumbled until the Giant took one of the barrels on her belt, opened it and poured its contents on his head. The wizard easily deflected it with a magical barrier that made the ale pour around him, which led to the other wizards needing to deflect it also until the beer formed a pool on the ground right where the Werewolves were seated. Upon seeing this pool they happily got down on all fours and lapped it up, regardless of their age. Even the little wolf pup joined in, all their tails wagging.
“In any case there will be no weapons of any kind, Ollie is a living weapon as it is” Rhea concluded.