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Gathering Clouds - Rise and Shine

NotoriousTBD Nov 1st, 2017 (edited) 1,618 Never
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  1. Things were beginning to move again.
  2.  
  3.     The peaceful hills and sleepy cottages of the Aulrein countryside passed by in minutes. Barreling down the tracks, the locomotive announce its arrival with a burst of its horn. Workers scrambled into position as the ringing of bells gave warning to travelers and onlookers alike. At last, the train rolled into the station, its breaks screeching out at the passenger cars came to a halt in front of the platform.  After a brief pause, the doors opened, and passengers emptied out. A round of applause started to grow and cheers echoed through the station and out onto the streets. Families, divided for so long after services were suspended, were now reunited. Merchants gave a sigh of relief, knowing business would soon pick up. Some members of the press even flocked to the locomotive, trying to get a word with the engineer. It had been three days since the East End had re-opened, but it was the long-anticipated arrival of this first train that gave the surest sign of a return to normalcy.
  4.  
  5.     In time, the flow of passengers slowed, and the fanfare dissipated. A white-gloved hand gripped the edge of the door, and a grey-haired man pulled himself out onto the platform. His stern features showed signs of wrinkles, but his suit was clean-pressed. Blue with white highlights, it was meant to evoke the garments of the Order priesthood. He strolled over to one of the stone columns, and with a slight smile, reached out to feel the masonry through his gloves. He took a minute to admire the architecture of Dammerung Central Station, from the open layout of the platforms to the windowed ceiling, where natural lighting flowed in, filtered only by the clouds above. Turning his attention to the crowds lingering on the platform, his eyes locked-on to the lone woman standing attentively near way to the exit. His well-polished boots echoed against the tiled floors as he walked over to meet her.
  6.  
  7.     "General Thurmond. It's an honor," she said with a salute. She wore a double-breasted jacket of the deepest blue to match her eyes, with gilded buttons matching her hair, all neatly obscuring her armor. With her trusted rapier at her side, she cut a striking figure against the stone walls of the station.
  8.     "At ease," returned the General, accompanied by his own salute as he came to a halt in front of the woman. "Lieutenant...no... Major Crosswood. I would prefer you to address me as Commander for the time being. I haven't felt like a general in a long time." He put his hand to his chin in reminiscence. "Furthermore, I believe this is hardly our first time meeting. I was present at your commencement, and I was good friends with your father.
  9.  
  10.     "Understood, Commander." The two began making their way down the corridor to the main entrance as they continued their conversation.
  11.     "He was a fine man, and I'm glad to see you living up to his legacy...although, is something wrong? You seem rather on edge."
  12.     "It's nothing. I'm just a bit shaken up."
  13.  
  14.     "Well, on to the matter at hand. As was discussed, my entourage will be taking the train to the terminal station and helping set things up. In the meantime, why don't you show me around town for a bit. I'm eager to see what Kirk has done with the place." He glanced back at the station platform. "Say what you will about his mannerisms, but there's no denying his good tastes. This station is just...gorgeous. I'm glad I finally got to see it in person." He turned back and the two of them exited out onto the streets.
  15.  
  16.     The main entrance of the station opened on to cobblestone path. Heading north from there, they soon arrived at main street, where two-storied houses of brick and mortar lined the roads all the way to west bank of the Aulrein River. From there, an old stone bridge gave pedestrians passage to the heart of the city, where merchants set up shop from dawn to dusk, and barkeeps upheld commerce thereafter. It was said that one's worth in this city could be measured by proximity to the main street and the river banks, with a key exception to this rule being Dammerung Keep itself. The ancient castle had stood for hundreds of years to the north of the center of town, far from either marker, at the end of a narrow and well-guarded path. Its current primary occupant was the traditionally-styled Baron Dammerung, Kirk Constance by birth, who had personally overseen not only the construction of Dammerung Central Station, but the implementation of the rail network that had revitalized commerce and trade with the lands to the west. The Keep also served as the barracks of the Dammerung Guards, a collection of courageous men and women tasked with keeping the peace in the fair city.
  17.  
  18.     It was the leader of this outfit that greeted the two Order soldiers as they neared the riverbank. Sporting a brown leather duster to go with the wide-brimmed hat over his unkempt grey hair, the man extended his hand to the Commander and, after the gesture was returned, gave it a good shake.
  19.  
  20.     "Horace Thurmond. General Horace Thurmond! As I live and breathe." His eyes light up as he grit his teeth, squeezing down hard before relinquishing his grip. "It's an honor."
  21.     "Jethro Stills, the feeling is mutual, but I'd prefer you address me as Thurmond. I'd rather not set an undue precedent." His features sharpened as his tone dulled. "Having the Guard Captain address me in a more familiar fashion would help ease fears that the Order intended to control this part of the Frontier, rather than merely operate out of it."
  22.  
  23.     "I see your mind is already at work getting to the bottom of that incident...talk about kicking the hornets’ nest. Brash and foolhardy, no doubt."
  24.     "Speaking of brash and foolhardy, what can you tell us about this guard who's gone missing?"
  25.  
  26.     The Captain ran his fingers through his beard, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. "Well, the kid never had a much of a proper name. Turned up in the orphanage at...four, I believe."
  27.  
  28.     "An upbringing in the House of Hard Knocks."
  29.  
  30.     "And the knocks were much harder before the Order stepped in. My thanks for that." He smiled at tipped his hat before continuing. "You could probably ask them about his younger years. He joined the guards at about 12. Personally, I met him a year earlier after he busted some mugger's face. Poor SOB tried robbing him in an alleyway. Way I see it, kid had two faces."
  31.  
  32.     "Hm? What do you mean by that?"
  33.  
  34.     "Well, for the most part, he tended to keep to himself, often lost in thought but hard to tell what he's thinkin' about. Spent a lot of time training and otherwise avoiding other people, so most of the other guards avoided him in turn. Of course, he sometimes surprised us. Like the time we convinced him to go out to Hobbs' Tavern. Kid can really hold his liquor, heh." He gave a chuckle to ease the mood, but stopped upon seeing the Commander's less-than-amused expression. "My point being, he was the strong-silent type. Plays well into his choice of weapons too. Longswords, claymores, that sort of thing."
  35.  
  36.     As the trio neared the other side of the bridge, Crosswood, silent till now, took this moment to interject.
  37.    
  38.     "Any clue where he might be now?"
  39.  
  40.     "Ah yes, I forgot to mention. Major Crosswood will be handling this investigation. Please provide any information you have on the matter to her. In the meantime, I had better see the Baron before he becomes overly irritable." The Commander gave a quick salute to Crosswood and bid the Guard Captain farewell before heading off in the direction of the Keep.
  41.     As he disappeared into the crowded streets, Crosswood gave a quick glance back to the Captain before gesturing him to continue.
  42.  
  43. ***
  44.  
  45.     The camp was quiet. Not a peep dared disturb the pre-dawn stillness of the tents, save for that of the new guy. The Rookie. The Swordsman. Fresh Meat. So inevitably, as the first light of dawn crept over the camp, a peculiar figure crept through the flap of his tent. Sliding along the floor, an amorphous blob of deep purple came to a halt in front of his shirtless, sleeping form. Tendrils began to emerge from the blob, twisting and waving about, soon taking the form of a beautiful woman. Long hair and shapely arms, her body had a nearly translucent quality such that a small orb could clearly be seen floating within her ample bosom. Her core, matching her magenta eyes, seemed to pulse as her expression changed to a mischievous smirk. The ends of her hair quickly morphed into long tendrils and began to seep about the sleeping Swordsman.
  46.  
  47.     "Here's Nurse Deidra, ready to give you your morning check-up," she whispered.
  48.  
  49.     When the Swordsman first arrived at the camp--stained in blood and barely breathing on Death's doorstep--she was responsible for mending his broken body. By the time he finally awoke--she, sadly, wasn't personally present for the occasion--she had already fallen in love with the visage of this strong, stoic warrior. Now, she took it upon herself to ensure that her work was holding up, and insisted on these morning examinations, whether or not her charge was fully aware. She placed the palm of her hand against his chest, feeling its movements through her gelatinous form, and smiled with the knowledge that her patient's breathing was strong and un-restrained. Then, with a sudden shudder, she began to slip into a gentle, almost trance-like state as she picked-up on his heartbeat.
  50.     Deidra was a Dark Slime, a type of monster of the slime family, boasting high intelligence and magical power to go along with the bizarre morphology typical of her kin. Having no internal structure of her own, save for her core--another feature unique to her species--she was absolutely fascinated by the physiology of other beings. Perhaps because she was a monster infused with the power of a succubus, she was particularly intrigued--enamored even--with the simple palpitations of the heart. In her eyes, there was no perceptible feature that better encapsulated the health, vitality, and emotion of a human male than that repetitive sound: lubdub, lubdub, lubdub. She bent down closer to the Swordsman, laying her chest atop his so that she could more closely feel those pulsations against her core. Her eyes closed as she envisioned him waking up and greeting her with kind words and a smiling face.
  51.     A sudden shift in the almost-hypnotic beat awoke Deidra from her stupor. She took a moment to reconfirm her patient was still fast asleep. She smiled, surmising that the interruption was caused by something unrelated to her actions; she was free to continue. Several more tendrils emerged from her form, one of which quickly retrieved a small glass bottle from a nearby crate. Through a dexterous process of tightening and twisting, she easily broke the seal on the vessel. A subtle, milky aroma began wafting through the tent as she wrapped herself further around the dark-haired man. Slipping another tendril beneath him, she eased him up and brought the bottle to his lips.
  52.  
  53.     "Time for your breakfast."
  54.  
  55.     The Swordsman's eyes snapped open as the cool liquid flowed over his lips. Some went down his throat the wrong way, causing him to spasm and bringing on a violent fit of coughing. The rest spilt on his chest, resulting in an unpleasant, sticky sensation.
  56.     "Dammit, Dee!" he said through a cough. "I told you to cut that out."
  57.     "Aww. Would you prefer a more natural approach?" She gave a willfully innocent smile as her tendril engulfed the bottle, siphoning the milk up through her body where it began to accumulate in her rapidly expanding chest.
  58.     "I said no! Now let me--argh!"
  59.     In spite of his protests, the Slime quickly placed one arm on the struggling man's chest and forced him back to the ground. She brought her other arm up to his face--placing a single finger across his lips as her body began flowing all around him.
  60.     "Doctor's orders! You need more rest. But don't worry..." Her misty eyes betrayed the innocence of her voice.
  61.  
  62.     "I can help you relax."
  63.  
  64.     Her feminine form straddled his chest while the amorphous base continued to flow around him. It enveloped his exposed backside and began to worm its way into his underclothes, a soothing coolness emanating from wherever it touched his skin. He found it difficult to continue his struggles against such an alien--but not entirely unpleasant--sensation. Hardening and softening, the strange substance started kneading his shoulders. The magenta orb pulsed again as Deidra let out a giggle, and a feeling of calm began to overtake the Swordsman's mind. His thoughts grew dim and his movements grew sluggish. Tension slipped out and his eyelids slipped closed.    Something cool brushed against his cheek, and he felt a slight, cool, pressure on part of his chest.
  65.     "Breath in...and out"
  66.     The Swordsman found himself listening to the voice, inhaling and exhaling as it commanded. The coolness on his chest shifted to another spot.
  67.     "Breath in...and out""
  68.     Again, this Swordsman followed the voice's directions, and again the coolness changed location.
  69.     "Breath in...and out"
  70.     The rhythm was soothing, and aided by the gentle caresses he could feel all over.
  71.     "In...and out."
  72.     "In...and out."
  73.     "In...and out."
  74.     "In...and out."
  75.     "Are you enjoying this?"
  76.     "Yes."
  77.     The Swordsman had no way of telling how long he lay there, enveloped by the Dark Slime. Not that he honestly cared. He could hardly remember a time he had been so at peace. He had only lived amongst these monsters for a few days, but each moment seemed to be a struggle against their bottomless lust and rampant nymphomania. And if that woman were to continue to pursue her goals...he felt the need to treasure any moment of respite he was granted, all but certain his future would be filled with more hardship than his past had ever been. Just thinking about it brought him dread. Uncertainty began to swirl once more through his mind, and his heart began to harden.
  78.     "If you...wanted," Deidra's voice chimed in softly, interrupting the growing storm.
  79.     "We could..."
  80.     A ripple passed through her form, and the Swordsman felt tingles against his skin.
  81.     "Uhhh...uuuhh...I...I need."
  82.     The ripples continued to grow. Opening his eyes, the Swordsman noticed an odd texture developing in Deidra's form. Something seemed to be bubbling up as anxiety returned anew to gnaw away at the Swordsman's peace of mind.
  83.     "You...to me..."
  84.     There was a growing change in her movements. Her body began to pulse and prod, jabbing at his sensitive spots. His chest and his sides; the nape of his neck and his inner thighs. Placing her slime on each side of his head, she whispered directly into his ears now:
  85.     "Give it to me."
  86.     The Swordsman gasped and shuddered as Deidra clamped down on his member, painfully hard now that he noticed it. Her entire body began moving to stroke, tease, and kiss his flesh wherever it could. He began to struggle, trying desperately to escape this honey trap before he was completely consumed, but it was no use. Her gyrations grew in speed and her ministrations multiplied in intensity. This wasn't just lust, the Swordsman understood, this was hunger. The monsters of the current age fed on the life force of humans, and the most reliable source of that energy stood towering between his thighs, recently liberated from his underpants.
  87.     "Whaaah! What is!? This is!?"
  88.     Her movements grew more and more frantic. Her slime twisted and swirled about the Swordsman's rod.
  89.     "Ah! Ah! Ah!"
  90.     Her expression dripped with euphoria and ecstasy beyond her control.
  91.     "Too much! It's too much! I'm! I'm! AAAAHHH!!"
  92.     For a moment, the Swordsman wondered if something was wrong. And then it ended. The Dark Slime's form suddenly collapsed into a pool of gel, the slime core floating at the top. Somehow, the Swordsman had held out. He stood up and promptly tucked his still-hard shaft back into his underpants. Looking over the sorry state of his tent, his bed, his underclothes, and his own body, he decided to begin his day with a quick bath in a nearby stream.
  93.  
  94. ***
  95.  
  96.     Crosswood gazed out over the river from the railing just across the street from an outdoor cafe. It was trendy site, popular among the Dammerung elite for its foreign pastries prepared with imported fruit, all sourced up the rived from the Calico ports. Baron Constance had once treated Johnson and her there after a successful bust of a smuggling ring. It was a rather mundane affair, even though it was almost cut short by the unexpected arrival of a nosey journalist. Strangely enough, what stood out most in her mind was the taste of the food: tangy, fruity, and above all alien to her soldier's palate.
  97.  
  98. Captain Stills stood a few paces behind her, contemplating what to say. Uncovering his head and holding his hat at his side, he walked over to join her. Looking down, he could see the men on the docks unloading their goods from a dingy--most likely from downstream. He turned his eyes skyward to watch the clouds overhead and began speaking.
  99.  
  100. "You know, there's country, not sure of the name, far to the north somewhere. They got a pretty interesting custom. When a beloved warrior died, they would take his body, load it on a wooden ship, and send it off to sea ablaze."
  101.  
  102. Crosswood leaned over the railing, forcing an oversized grin. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
  103. "It means everyone deals with grief in their own way. Just a few days ago, I lost a dear friend. And just last night I may have lost one of my best men."
  104. "You're missing man isn't dead. Not yet at least." She turned to face Stills with a renewed spirit. "If we're going to find him, you'll have to trust me."
  105.  
  106. Crosswood stepped away from the railing and motioned for Stills to follow. He rapidly obliged, re-donning his hat before the two set off down a side street looping back to the main road. It was a well-known shortcut around the crowded market streets, linking up near the annex of the Great Church
  107.  
  108. "Now, pardon the cliché, but they always say trust is a two-way street. After the Order shut down the rail line and the East End, a got an earful and then some from Kirk, who no doubt got the same from the Board. The boys are workin' hard gettin' everyone re-settled, but some folks are still a bit nervous. Talk of you-know-whats don't die easy."
  109.  
  110. The pair rounded a corner, passing by the site of the Order barracks. Most of the security perimeter had dispersed, and the road open to the public one more. Even so, Major Crosswood mused that Callahan was probably still finishing up his investigation. He'd be setting off for the Capital this evening, guiding Johnson on his way home.
  111.  
  112. "Now, I'm not asking for you to pull a Johnson and step on some toes of the brass over a draft or two at Hobbs', but at least a hint or two at what the Order found so interesting."
  113.  
  114. Crosswood looked back at Stills before folding her arms across her chest. "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss, but--hold up!"
  115.  
  116. The Major came to a halt and motioned for Stills to do the same. Apparently, there was some disturbance in the streets. Several papers were strewn through the streets. Crosswood happened to catch one underfoot. A single word was emblazoned on the front: Liberty. She picked it up and handed it over to the young man--about her age, incidentally--who was frantically working to retrieve them. Wide-eyed and fresh-faced, he wore a red blazer that she recognized as belonging to a foreign university. She waved him off and turned back to the Captain, who looked on with a smirk.
  117.  
  118. "Hehehe. Big doings these days."
  119.  
  120. With the crowd dispersing, the two again set off, this time down another side road where they would be less likely to run into any more congestion.
  121.  
  122. "So, ya can't say what it is but, can ya at least say if the matter's settled?"
  123. "Aren't you the one who said things are rarely settled in the Frontier?"
  124. "Well if we're not settlin, what are we here for? Jokin' aside, I mean...if you think the kid is still alive...did he win?"
  125.  
  126. She brought a hand to her forehead, placing a finger above each eye. After a moment's pause, she smiled and opened her mouth. "You raised one hell of a swordsman, Stills. It would be a shame to lose him."
  127. "Good to hear, hehehe." The Captain ran his fingers through his beard again. "Good to hear."
  128.  
  129.  
  130. ***
  131.  
  132. As usual, the large canvas from his first meeting was again spread out in the center of the table. In spite of a few inaccuracies here and there, the Swordsman had easily recognized it as a map of the Frontier and other surrounding areas. From the Aquila Peaks eastward to the tributaries of the mighty Aulrein River, then south through Dammerung, over the southern borderline and all the way to the port of Calico, the map was dotted with the names of countless small towns and villages. Hatches marked the railways across the great plains, where locomotives raced between the Keep and St. Alder, often called the gateway to--and from--the Frontier. East of Dammerung were the forests separating the Frontier into East and West. The map didn't really show very much past that.
  133.  
  134. According to Morgan, the Harpies and other scouts who worked on the map didn't much care for that place. The swordsman understood their sentiment.
  135.  
  136. Just beyond the forest, traced in glossy black ink that easily caught one's eye, was the path the Lilim's band had traveled thus far. Making landfall further along the coast from Calico, they marched North following the eastern perimeter of the forest, avoiding the heavily traversed trade routes and checkpoints between Calico and the Frontier proper.
  137.  
  138. The guard captain back at the Keep once said this was an old smugglers' route, used to avoid the port town long lampooned for its associated tariffs, fees, and inspections. Evidently, the route was mostly abandoned after gaining a reputation for bandit attacks, and a regime change in both Calico and the Keep led to revised trade policies. The flipside of this was that the borderline became an Order checkpoint. Tariffs were diminished, to the satisfaction of many a merchant, but the heavily patrolled border still remained a point of consternation to diehard Frontiersmen and dovish Order officials--albeit for slightly different reasons.
  139.  
  140. Crossing the border head-on would mean engaging the Order at their strongest point, so naturally the Lilim's band decided to forgo such risks for the comparatively mild threat of bandit attacks. With only one exception, the bandits were a now show--much to the displeasure of some of the succubi who were looking for "bad boys," as they say. Cutting through the forest at Hastert's Pass, they crossed into the Western Frontier and set up camp some distance from Dammerung. With enough wilderness between them and any routine Order activity, they've been free to scout out the area, trying to gather as much information as possible before their next, critical move.
  141.  
  142. In short, they've been busy doing nothing.
  143.  
  144. The man in gauze must have had that fact racing in his mind as he looked over the other faces gathered in the tent. His exposed eye gave a slight twitch. He and the Swordsman had arrived early, as usual. Morgan--the so-called Demon Beast Baphomet--was resting on a comfortable-looking couch she had summoned. She shifted about before grabbing a throw pillow with her furred arms and pulling it into a tight hug. Her peaceful form almost calmed him down. Almost. Keith, that was his name, reached into the pockets of the heavy coat at the heart of his ragged attire, and pulled out a small, unmarked box. Cigarettes. Only one left. His eye gave another twitch as he placed the coveted possession in his mouth. Reaching back into his pockets, he fished around before realizing he left his matches back in his tent. His eye began twitching incessantly now, and the vein above it seemed like it would pop right out of his forehead at a moment’s notice. He shifted his attention to the candles in the middle of the table.
  145.  
  146. "Need a light?" A black-furred paw cupped his cheek from behind before thrusting a pair of digits between his lips. Hot breath greeted his ears as a second paw began feeling up his chest. The paw began moving lower, and lower, and lower still as Keith struggled to fend off the intrusion in his gums. It was over in an instant. The owner of the paws let out a small laugh as she plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it on the grass. Amber, that was her name, was a Hellhound, a beast-like monster with wild black hair, furred appendages--dark red ending in black paws in her case--and skin the color of soot. As the name suggests, they possessed many features reminiscent of dogs, but twisted into something more fitting a creature that crawled out from the depths of Hades. They were a race known for their strong, sturdy bodies--though no less alluring than most succubi--as well as their violent and obstinate dispositions. Of course, she seemed almost pleasant side by side with the simmering Keith.
  147.  
  148. "Dammit Goldie! That was my last one!"
  149.  
  150. She growled a bit at the mention of the nickname--a bit more groan inducing than her given name, both derived from her amber eyes set in black irises. She gritted her teeth and exposed her fangs. A sudden surge of magical energy enraged her flame-tipped eyebrows. Dark red claws, wickedly sharp, emerged from her furred digits before seeming to recede into a more benign and manageable form.
  151.  
  152. "Come on, Keith. Didn't I tell you before? Stress is bad, but cigarettes are so much worse." She cupped Keith's face with both paws now and started rubbing her check against his. "If you're feeling stressed," she whispered, "just come to me."  She released his face and then delivered here next words so that everyone could hear. "We wouldn't want you light your bandages on fire...again!"
  153.  
  154. "Ha Ha Ha!" A boisterous laugh echoed from the armored figure seated on a makeshift throne of supplies.
  155.  
  156. "Shut it, fatty!" Keith grumbled.
  157.  
  158. "Fathi!" the armor boomed, before starting to rise with the clinking of metal plates and chain mail. "See to it that you remember my name or I will...Oh!" He halted as if gripped by something unseen, then sat back down on the supply crates. "Almost lost my temper."
  159.  
  160. Amber's ears perked up just as a duo of new arrivals entered the tent.
  161.  
  162. Or rather a trio.
  163.  
  164. "Sorry we're a bit late," Kate said, moving up her tail to display the slimy purple growth wrapped around it partway to the tip. "Seems Dee here had a bit of a nasty spill this morning." She held her tail out over the table, letting the growth collect into a droplet before falling down with a plop.  As the blob spread itself out, it grew more translucent and a small magenta orb came into view. Kate flashed a toothy grin as she took a seat, almost begging the others to ask for more details. With no one taking the bait, she trained her gaze on the Swordsman. She always did this when the two were in any close situation, waiting for him to notice and then looking away as soon as he started staring back. Coming in behind her was another of the more predatory girls. Admittedly, the Swordsman wasn't sure of the name of the Mantis girl. Even though she had on consecutive days gifted him various pieces of hand-fashioned leather armor, she always departed after a brief "Thank you...Ms...?", albeit never before. Silent as always, she made no perceptible gestures nor gave any salutations as she made her way to an open spot on the table. Perhaps on account of her abdomen, she remained standing rather than taking a chair.
  165.  
  166. This left Her.
  167.  
  168. At the Swordsman's first meeting, the Lilim had made a rather extravagant entrance, emerging as if from a portal formed out of the shadows gathering in the corners of the room. She even made a show of flourishing her blade to call the meeting to order. According to Keith, however, she did the same thing when he joined. It was just a show for any new--male--recruits. Now, she entered through the humble tent flap, just like everyone else. Even so, the others rose from their seats out of respect for their leader--save for Morgan, who merely opened her eyes and repositioned herself on the couch. As she approached the head of the table, an inky black substance began to flow from her robe, gliding along the ground before pooling at her apparent destination. The bizarre material began to shape and solidify into a throne, on which she promptly took her seat. The entire process was so seamless she never broke her stride, almost as if the throne had been there right from the start.
  169.  
  170. "Now then."
  171.  
  172. She crossed her legs and leaned to the side in regal posture, bringing a set of porcelain fingers to rest under her chin.
  173.  
  174. "Shall we begin?"
  175.  
  176. As all in attendance nodded in acquiescence, Kate was the first to speak up, picking a stack of papers up off the table.
  177.  
  178. "I'll start be reading the latest inventories, as well as incident reports at camp." In her normal voice, absent the sultry flair she used to fish for reactions, she briskly went down the list detailing how much food, equipment, or other such products were currently in the camp, as well as gave the latest gossip around camp of which outlying village had the cutest boys. As she did, the small puddle on the table careful maneuvered towards an inkwell holding down one of the corners of the map. A small head and torso emerged, a miniature Deidra resting her elbows on the edge of the inkwell, allowing some of her form to sink into the container itself.
  179.  
  180. "Next, are the latest reconnaissance reports from the twins." In the same practiced fashion as usual, Deidra followed along with Kate's report, gentle smile on her face, twiddling her fingers this way and that, as countless bits of her form, broke off from her main body, carrying just a drop of enchanted ink. The deep purple droplets mixed with the ink, changing colors to all manner of hues. There were changes in shape, too. Soldiers, cavalry, even a pair of ships just off the edge of the map, representing the Order fleet off the coast to the south.
  181.  
  182. "We're still seeing the same trend of increased bandit activity in the north and northwest. This follows the reduced patrols in those areas as Order forces are being drawn back towards Dammerung keep." Some yellow miniatures, wielding axes and spears, began to wander the northwest regions of the map, as blue musketeers and cavalry drew closer to the key city. "To the east, there has been increased raider attacks on Joufoss settlements on the southern foothills at the edge of the wastes." Red figures, with all manner of odd equipment, began prodding at green huts towards the northeast edge of the map. "As always, further recon into the wastes proved impossible without significant risks. And, lastly, waterfront travel and trade seem to be returning to its normal levels following the lull these past few weeks."
  183.  
  184. Keith and Amber eyed one another anxiously as Kate took a deep breath and pulled out the next set of papers.
  185.  
  186. "Now, onto the secondhand accounts. This includes information provided by our newest ally, overheard from Order forces within Dammerung itself, as well as new information collected just this morning." Several faces light up at the word "new," as Kate continued with a smirk.
  187.  
  188. "Order numbers in the Frontier are expected to increase in response to the recent attack on their barracks. Although a new commander is expected to arrive any day now by rail line from the west, the bulk of the forces will arrive by ship in the coming months. We can only speculate the size and composition of these new forces, but most sources are predicting that they will be considerable. Armored units and spellcasters are a strong possibility."
  189.  
  190. At the mention of this, blue knights, mages, and cannons made their way northward from the miniature Order fleet towards the city. Amber eyed them carefully and, seeing her chance, interrupted Kate before she could continue. Kate's expression deflated as she knew what was coming.
  191.  
  192. "This is why we have to act sooner rather than later." Her tone was forceful, but subdued, and she planted one hand firmly on the table. "The longer we wait, the more Order forces we'll have t' fight when we finally move on the Keep."
  193.  
  194. "Wrong!" Keith shot back from across the table with a grin. "We move in now and we'll be sittin' ducks, hardly able to take the city and get dug in before the first wave of troops arrives."
  195.  
  196. "Let them come! The Order's got a lot more bark these days, but the bite's the same as ever. In a real fight, against real monsters, they won't stand a chance. Though I might get a real man to replace you, ya' coward!"
  197.  
  198.  
  199. "I'd rather be called a coward than a fool. We stick to the countryside for now, where we only have to deal with the small patrols."
  200.  
  201. "Until the first time they catch us, or the villagers let something slip. Then everything’s back on the table. Order comes runnin' in and we have nothin' to show for it...as you might say. Again, I say we can take 'em. either way, right Fathi?" She turned to the hulking set of cobalt armor.
  202.  
  203. "Hhhmm..." The armor shifted and stood up to approach the table. "I have no doubts about my wife and my abilities," he said in his stern voice, made uneven solely by his thick accent, "but I have a few key concerns. First, there is the matter of civilians. We do not fully understand the Order's reasons for being here, were monsters are so scarce. Knowing their objective would go a long way in gauging their resolve and the strength they are willing to use."
  204.  
  205. "I've been thinking the same thing," Keith added. "Assuming they don't know we're coming, the Order being here has nothing to do with fighting monsters"
  206.  
  207. "Second, there is the matter of our own strength and resolve."
  208.  
  209. Amber crossed her arms with an impatient snarl. "You heard the report. We have supplies t' last."
  210.  
  211. "Our numbers aren't exactly a burden," the Swordsman added, under his breath. Only the mantis, and possibly Kate with a twitch of her ears, seemed to notice.
  212.  
  213. "That is not what I meant. I do not mean to speak ill of our leader or her followers, but the girls she has recruited seem...naïve. Unready for the battles to come. The nature of the Frontier stifles the aura of the succubus, making a rout the likes of Lescatie unthinkable, even with a Lilim by our side." He eyed the pieces set out on the map: infantry, cavalry, spellcasters, and more. "Through countless years, my people learned the ways of battle against forces large and small. Victory was earned not with swords, spears, or even simpler things like food and water, but with the strength and skill of warriors, ready and willing to fight. These girls...they seem to think of this as a game."
  214.  
  215. "Have you ever faced a succubus in battle?" The question came from the Lilim herself.
  216.  
  217. "I acknowledge that I have not. I have heard tales of how dance and twirl, disarming men with their hands and words. But these girls are not royal knights. Even for those who carry the blood of heroes, forcing them to rely on instincts and informal training alone...would be a mistake for us...and a cruelty to them.
  218.  
  219. "I see."
  220.  
  221. Amber spat a bit of fire. "If you're gonna change your vote then..." She paused to consider how that would impact the deadlock.
  222.  
  223. "Votes don't matter. Milady has the final say." Morgan lifted herself up briefly to offer her monotone retort before immediately returning to her reclined position.
  224.  
  225. "How helpful of you."
  226.  
  227. "You're welcome."
  228.  
  229. "Well, we've got two choices but only one clear plan."
  230. "'Charge in and hope for the best' isn't a plan, Goldie."
  231. "Better than your 'wait and see'."
  232. "If we attack on several fronts..."
  233. "You're just scared!"
  234.  
  235. The conversation soon turned into a cacophony of incomplete thoughts spoken out loud.
  236.  
  237. "So long as the treaty is in place..."
  238. "Perhaps the river..."
  239. "If we draw them into the forest..."
  240. "..."
  241. "Do you still need me down here?"
  242.  
  243. The Swordsman remained silent as the others continued to argue. It always ended like this. Any minute now, She would have to adjourn the meeting for lunch. Any minute now...
  244.  
  245. At that moment, a strange thought crossed her mind. The Swordsman. An outsider. A human of the Frontier. The Order. The monsters. What did this all mean to him? Regardless of circumstance, he chose to join the monsters. She remembered what she had been told about the nature of the Frontier, and the nature of humanity. The history of this land and its people.
  246.  
  247. She remembered her father's words and those of the countless books she read. Of war and peace. Of humans and monsters. An idea began forming in her mind. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a coin of realmgold. A keepsake of hers, inscribed on one side with a symbol like that of a heart. On the other was an emblem she had adopted for her own use, pulled from the legends of bygone era. She turned the coin over in her hand three times, then closed her eyes to envision the markings in her mind.
  248.  
  249. The mantis was the first to notice, and she began staring attentively at her leader. The Swordsman was next. Then the Manticore, the Dark Slime, and the Armor.
  250.  
  251. "Huh?" The bandaged man noticed along with the Hellhound. "You've got to joking."
  252.  
  253. The Baphomet remained lying on the couch, but cracked a slight grin. She had a vague idea of what was about to happen.
  254.  
  255. "Heads or tails!"
  256.  
  257. With a flick of the wrist, the Lilim sent the coin twirling into the air. The others--save Morgan--watched the coin turn over in the air, again and again, eager to see the outcome and learn what it meant. It struck the table on its side, rebounding twice before starting to roll about the map. It cut across the river in a wide arc, heading south towards the rail line as bandits and soldiers dodged out of the way. Passing Dammerung Keep, the coin fell into a tight spiral nearing as it began to wobble on its axis. Those with keen eyes tried to focus on what symbol was on the outside, but again could only guess at what meant what. Amber’s pulse rose. The Swordsman focused his eyes. Keith wiped the sweat from his bandaged brow. Fathi leaned in. The mantis stared attentively.
  258.  
  259. "All warfare is the art of deception."
  260. The Lilim drew her blade and, with flourish unseen, pierced the map right at the Keep.
  261. "When we are strong, we must appear weak; when we are weak me must appear strong"
  262. She drove her trusted saber further into the table.
  263. "When we are near, we must appear far away; when we are far away, we must appear near."
  264. The blade did not buckle even with half its length imbedded.
  265. "Attack where the enemy is unprepared."
  266. She grabbed the unsharpened ricasso below the hilt with her offhand and began to carve through the canvas in a straight line.
  267. "Appear where you are unexpected."
  268. The blade traveled neatly across the map and kept going until it when off the edge and slipped cleanly out from the side of the table.
  269. "Avoid what is strong and strike what is weak. Win first, then go to battle."
  270.  
  271. The Lilim held up her blade for all to see, carefully guiding her fingers along the untarnished edge. Keith rushed over to inspect the cut, running his index finger along the impeccably straight path, shooing away so curious blue knights as he did. The moment he felt the bare tabletop he understood how she did it. She had not cut the table itself, but merely forced her blade into the gap between boards. Did she trace the gap all the way from its end at the table's edge? No, it must have been the subtle movements of the coin that pointed the way. Regardless, Keith and the others now looked to the Lilim for her next words.
  272.  
  273. "Our mistake was seeing only the map laid out before us. Seeing the Frontier as land, rather than the people who live there. Strong and determined, beholden to neither gods nor men. The spirit of the Frontier is the spirit of a warrior, facing down any challenge thrown their way. We are not the invaders. The Order is!" She swept her hands across the map from where the bandits roamed freely, down southward to the fleet of the coast. "In the far reaches where they are needed, they do not come. In the city where they are unwanted, they remain. Our new friend is proof of that point. And so follows our grand strategy."
  274.  
  275. Fathi and the Swordsman already had an idea of what was to follow. Keith and Amber locked eyes, wondering which of them would claim victory here. The Mantis continued to stare, Morgan smiled to herself, and Deidra readied the black ink.
  276.  
  277. Moments later, the entire camp was gathered outside the main tent as the Lilim presented her plan.
  278.  
  279. "With the supplies and strength we have now, we shall ally ourselves with the outlying towns and villages. Our strength will grow, and our roots will take hold until no grand invasion could force us out. But we will remain unseen so long as the Order does not care to see us. All the while, a small fraction of our forces, a chose elite few, will embed themselves deeply into the heart of the Order's operation at Dammerung Keep. Events beyond our control have already forced the Order's hand. With more troops and weapons, what was once a nuisance shall become a burden, and then an intolerable presence. We shall ignite the hearts of the populace and fan the flames of rebellion. The path will be long, a conflict will be almost certain, but in the end, our forces will unite with the strength of the Frontier, and together we shall drive the Order from these lands!"
  280.  
  281. Some of those gathered began to applaud, but the Lilim held up her hand to offer one last caveat.
  282.  
  283. "I cannot say now if Aulrein will ever become a Demon Realm. The Frontier has stood, wild and free, for centuries with no master. But I will say this. Many have tried to conquer these lands. All have failed! And the Order shall be no different!"
  284.  
  285. The crowd began to cheer, some of the succubi looking around excitedly. There was so much to do!
  286.  
  287. "En marche!"
  288.  
  289. Onward! The order was given, and the crowd broke away. A new sense of purpose gripped the camp. Groups of succubi began chatting about the future. Camp leadership set about giving orders and making preparations to move. The harpy twins set off for the river. Tonight’s dinner would be a celebratory feast. The Lilim smiled and looked out among her loyal followers. There was the Swordsman. He was smiling. Everyone was smiling. A gust wind began to blow through the camp.
  290.  
  291. Things were beginning to move again.
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