Wet Hero

by M. Alan Thomas II

Season 1.0: Town Life

Episode 1: A wet hero appears

Isabelle Ming felt like a drowned rat. Torrential downpours have a tendency to do that to people. She sneezed, wondering why she didn't leave her job. Not the guarding-a-meaningless-merchant-who-happens-to-be-traveling-through-a-war-zone job, but the I'm-a-hero-let's-go-defeat-evil job. Had she known about the rain and the low pay and the scars and the injuries that still ached in cold weather she would have . . . well, she would have done the exact same thing, but damn it, that didn't make it fun.

She glared ahead through the trees lining the forest path, idly wondering if the merchant was lost or just doing a very good impression of it. They were over two and a half hours late arriving at the village that was their next destination. Some of that was due to a sick horse that was slowing them down; apparently it belonged to someone in the village and the merchant didn't want to abandon it. Isabelle sneezed and winced at the first hints of stress and sinus headaches. At least they would be staying in an inn overnight when—if—they reached the village.

It took another hour to get to the village. The onset of evening had rapidly sapped what light was left in the overcast sky, and only the appearance of a torch-bearing guide from the village had convinced the merchant to finish the journey. Isabelle was impressed; not many people had the bravery to travel much distance through the woods at night even under normal conditions, and conditions were most definitely not normal.

The so-called "Southern Rebellion"—that was a polite way of saying "the insane Black Jong and those misfits of his"—had pressed north into this area, and his press gangs were already out "recruiting" every stray traveler that they could find. Still, the merchants had managed to avoid them. So much for the first half of the journey. Isabelle let her mind drift away from thoughts of work and looked around at the village. The darkness had reduced everything to shades of black and grey, but a good deal could still be seen.

Episode 2: Tall, blond, and handsome

The merchants were busy securing their wagons alongside an inn that fronted the forest path. Isabelle was surprised that the town had enough visitors to support an inn. Clearly the tavern on the ground floor was a lively place, but its customers would most likely be locals and therefore not in need of a room. The village didn't look so large that it would be hard for even a drunk man or woman to find their way home, especially given the rather unique architecture.

The architecture was something like a patchwork quilt; everything was sown together into one village, but the pieces were odd and rarely matched. A stone tower (Stone? Where did they get stone in this area?) rose up from what was likely the town square. Near it was a quiet country cottage, and next to that rose a low mound with a door in the front. There was even a manse off to one side of the other houses. Between that and the inn lay three row houses, and all across the village could be seen other such strange architecture.

Isabelle decided to abandon her self-guided tour in favor of the warmth and light of the inn's tavern. She pushed open the door on the right and stepped inside, only to be confronted by a scene nearly as strange as the one she had just left. Inside was a variety of people unusual for all but the most cosmopolitan trade centers: A dwarf, three shady characters, and a clean-cut man with shoulder-length blond hair sat at the bar along the right wall. On Isabelle's left could be found a drunk man juggling more knives than she could count easily, two very old men with staves, and a boy perhaps seven years of age. Further back was a table at which sat, among others, a female bard with a steel mandolin. The crowd in the mostly-full room numbered perhaps two dozen, of which half or more were decidedly odd.

The blond man at the bar, who was closest to the door, rose to greet Isabelle. "Welcome to our village. May I take your cloak?"

Startled, Isabelle took off her dripping cloak and handed it to the man.

He grinned, gestured for her to follow him, and walked to the far side of the bar. "The cloak rack's back here. A wet cloak may be uncomfortable, but some of our residents refuse to take them off unless they've had a chance to parade about first." He hung up her cloak. "You can put your sword here too, if you want."

Isabelle looked at the four swords already sitting underneath the cloak rack and decided that this wasn't an ordinary village.

Episode 3: South Seas red

Getting drunk would have been easy, but Isabelle didn't want to. The merchants wouldn't be leaving until the day after next, but she didn't want her employers to see her either drunk or hung-over. In addition, getting drunk in a strange town, especially one as odd as this, was never a good idea. Still, she was cold, wet, and tired, and people might answer a few of her questions if she acted social. She sat on the nearest barstool and waited for the bartender to notice her.

The bartender, a huge aproned man with a shaved head and bulging muscles, arrived within seconds. "What'll you have?"

"What're you serving?"

"Name it," he challenged.

"South Seas red."

The bartender walked a bit to his left and bent down to reach underneath the bar. When he straightened up he was holding a bottle of wine. "On the house," he said, placing it in front of her.


The bartender put down a glass for the wine and pulled a small knife from his apron. "Why not?" He shrugged and used the knife to remove the bottle's cork.

Isabelle wasn't about to argue with free wine, so she changed the subject. "Quite an odd crowd you have here."

"In what way?"

"It's just that it's a little cosmopolitan for a small village in the middle of the woods."

"Well, we were founded by some immigrants looking for a quiet place to live out their lives, and word got around. There's very few native citizens here."

"I see," said Isabelle. "Well, then—"

"AHEM!" A new voice from the front door interrupted her. "If I may have you attention please? I represent Black Jong and his army, and we were thinking that anyone who has the spare time to be out drinking on a weeknight such as this would make a great soldier. Now we'd be happiest if you all volunteered, but there are other methods if we need them."

The room went silent as people considered the meaning of this pronouncement, and Isabelle leaned forward to get a clear view of the door. In front of it stood a large, scarred man, and visible in the doorway behind him was another of the same type. Well, thought Isabelle, this promises to be interesting.

Episode 4: Bar fight!

Without moving, the blond man sitting at the bar by the door quietly asked, "Who's on watch tonight?"

"The triplets," said the bartender. "You're not on for another week."

"Good." The blond turned to face the man in front of the door. "I'd go away if I were you; you won't find a man between fourteen and forty in this town."

Isabelle blinked and looked around. She had been so fixated on everyone's differences that she had failed to notice their one commonality: With the exception of a couple of children, everyone in the room was in the last third of their reasonable lifespan. A few of the older men were even past sixty if appearances were to be believed. Isabelle, at thirty-seven, was the third youngest person in the room. It was a new experience for her, and she wasn't sure that she liked it.

"You seem active enough for army life." The man's right hand moved towards a billy club at his waist. "Why don't you volunteer and save us the trouble of recruiting you?"

There was a loud slam as a huge warhammer dropped onto the bar. "Why don't you stop threatening my customers?"

Both Isabelle and the press-gang boss stared at the massive weapon. What, thought Isabelle, is this town full of ex-legionnaires or something? No, the Imperial Legions don't use warhammers. . . .

The scarred man raised his left hand, snapped, and pointed at the bartender. There was the snap of a crossbow and a thump outside one of the windows. The scarred man looked around, confused.

"Sounds like the triplets took out one of your men. You'd better not try that again," said the blond man.

"How about I break your neck instead?" The boss started forward.

The room momentarily filled with the sounds of wood and steel, and the scarred man stopped in his tracks less than an arm's reach from the blond. In the second it had taken him to take two steps, a dozen or more weapons had been produced about the room, the bartender had stepped up to the end of the bar with his warhammer, the knife-juggling man had leapt in front of the second man in the doorway, one of the two old men by the door had begun chanting something that sounded suspiciously like magic, and the other had stuck his staff between the scarred man's legs.

The blond glanced around before looking back at his attacker. "How about you go away? We're not going to make it easy for you to recruit us."

The press-gang boss growled as he straightened up and turned towards the door. He strode out of it quickly, forcing both the knife-wielding man and the other scarred man to the side as he went. A moment later the knife-man closed the door.

"He's going to be trouble."

"Kill him."

"He'll just get more troops and attack if he reports back."

The blond man looked around. "Any objections?"

"I wish we had the time to put this t' the town council, but I s'pose it can't be helped."

Someone grunted.

The bartender was now facing the room, and Isabelle saw that his warhammer was surrounded by a faint blue glow. "Well, that constitutes a quorum. Jack, if you would . . . ?"

The man with the knives nodded. "He'll be dead by midnight." He slipped out into the night.

Isabelle looked down at her drink and decided to order something stronger.

Episode 5: The truth

Isabelle was staring at the untouched brandy in front of her when the blond man sat down to her right. She looked over at him; he had his left sleeve pulled up to reveal a spring sheath, into which he was sliding a poniard. He finished, pulled his sleeve down, and looked at her.

"I bet you've got some questions now."

"If you know what I'm thinking, why don't you just answer them?"

"Touché. You've heard the 'three stages of life' theory?"

"Sure. It may seem odd for a caravan guard, but I went to university."

"With the exception of a few tradesmen, everyone here is either in their first or last stage of life. 'Fourteen to forty' wasn't quite accurate, but it conveyed the right idea. A lot of us are tired of our old lives and would rather that we didn't have to deal with people asking annoying questions; that why we're here. I would advise you to respect that."

"Okay. But that would be a lot easier if I knew who people were without having to ask."

He stared at her silently for a moment. "Alright, here's the deal: I'll tell you whatever it is that you want to know about somebody . . . if you know who they are. I may tell you some of the less-known people simply because they deserve more recognition than the bards give them, but other than that . . ." He picked up the drink that the bartender had dropped off for him and took a sip. "Well, perhaps I'm being too harsh. After all, both the bartender and I already know who you are, so I'll give you two freebies in return. What'll it be?"

She grinned with an expression that she normally reserved for scaring off petty thieves. "That's easy: you and the bartender."

Episode 6: Arthur

The blond man took another sip of his drink and began. "I'm Arthur. I was born to the Captain of the Silver Order of Avallonis and his wife, a paladin of The Order of White. To the surprise of absolutely no-one, I became a squire at age eleven, was enrolled into the military at age thirteen, and completed my training at age fifteen, whereupon I was placed with the third frontier strike force of the Imperial Army. I served there for five years, earning one medal for bravery during the opening skirmishes of the Second Expansion War. I was transferred to the first special operations division when war was declared, underwent another year of training, and spent the remaining three years of the war on deep-penetration raids. When the war ended I had gotten a few more awards and had just turned twenty-four. They transferred me to the Royal Guard from the Imperial Army and made me a captain. It took me six years to make lieutenant general, at which point I was placed into the Silver Order. Five years there made me their Captain, and I spent one disastrous year in that position before retiring and coming here to live. That was three years ago; I am now thirty-eight."

Episode 7: Maximilian

"The bartender's name is Maximilian. He was the military governor of a small 'republic' controlled by the Empire. Their land was liberated by the resistance forces in the Second Expansion War when they invaded the Empire. My team was sent in on a deep-penetration raid to extract him and the rest of the command staff from his besieged capitol. Turned out things were worse than we knew; the enemy had already taken the capitol, and Max had been holding them off from inside the Government Building. They kicked in the doors at about the time that we blew through the west town gate. When we got to the building, we found this lug in military field plate with a huge blue warhammer and no helmet holding off an assault squad at the bottom of the stairs to the third floor. He'd ordered the rest of the staff to bar themselves in an upstairs room and was trying to take down as many of the enemy as possible before he forced them to kill him; there was an execution order out for him, and he felt that it was more honorable to die fighting for his people than to be captured and executed. He was hoping that after they had killed him they would be satisfied and let the rest of the staff surrender peacefully.

"We had entered via a third-floor window and had already found the rest of the staff, so they were being evacuated when we arrived at the staircase. Several guys from the team provided cover while I explained the situation to Max and convinced him to fall back; we slowly yielded the stairs until I got word that everyone was out of the building. (This was late in the war, and I had been made a sergeant.) I sounded the retreat, and we all got out of there alive somehow. Max went on to be temporarily named a captain in the Imperial Guard and placed in charge of a company of irregulars formed from similarly disenfranchised troops; they called it 'The Lost Soldiers' Brigade' and won quite a bit of fame and praise. Afterwards, though, he was blamed for not having controlled one of his commanders well enough, resulting in his province's support for the invaders. Public opinion was turned against him by one of his political rivals, and he retired here after spending several years on the border cleaning up raiders on his own."

Episode 8: A little explanation

Isabelle nodded. "That's an interesting story, but it would make more sense if I knew all of the military terms that you used. I was raised in the capitol, but my family's foreign, and I only studied foreign economics before I dropped out of university; the last time someone explained the Empire's military structure to me was when I was twelve."

"Oh. Sorry about that; I was career military, and I tend to forget that not everyone knows what I'm talking about. What are you short on?"

"The different divisions you were talking about. I can guess most of them based on the names, but that doesn't mean that I'm right."

"Hmm. Let's see . . . The frontier strike force is a rapid-reaction and surgical strike force; the third one happens to have the southern section of the Empire's eastern border as its operational area. Err . . . maybe that's too technical as well. The frontier strike force was there to respond to attacks quickly and to make quick, precise attacks on threats that were just on the other side of the border. The special operations division did similar strikes but with fewer people and in more dangerous situations, often well behind enemy lines; the first division covers the entire south-east portion of the Imperial territory. The Imperial Army is the Empire's offensive force; the Royal Guard is an elite defensive force that protects Avallonis itself as well as being the Emperor's personal army as King of Avallonis. The Imperial Guard is a defensive force that protects the Empire's lands that aren't Avallonis. When I say 'Avallonis' I mean the kingdom that started the Empire, not the Imperium Avallonis. The Silver Order of Avallonis is a group of roughly two-dozen irregulars who are all outstanding in battle and are charged with defending Avallonis and the Empire. The Gold Order, by comparison, is a group of varying size, generally twelve to twenty-four, charged with attacking enemy forces. There's a bit of a rivalry between the two. Anything else you're missing?"

"Nope. In fact, I'm not sure why I listened to all that in the first place. Still, it served to pass the time." She glanced at the darkened windows. "I think that I'll be going to bed now; I'd hate to miss the excitement tomorrow."

"What excitement?"

"In a town with this population, I'm sure they'll find something."

Episode 9: When the going gets tough . . .

Isabelle Ming woke up after what seemed like an eternity. It was, however, only a few hours past dawn the next morning. She rolled out of bed, the reflexive twisting in midair to land in a crouch helping to wake her up. She grabbed her armour and sword and put it on as she walked down the stairs and out of the inn. Silent Thunder, the caravan's night guard, sat on one of the wagons sharpening his sword.

The quiet guard in black looked up as she passed by. "We had some visitors last night."

"What do you mean?"

"Wolves, mostly with glowing green eyes. Someone'd possessed them."

"Possessed? Were they scouting us?"

"I suppose so. Can you think of anything else to do with half-a-dozen possessed wolves?"

"Did they attack?"

"What do you think I'm sharpening nicks out of my sword for?" There was a moment of silence. "The residents have called a town meeting. They want you to be there; better head on up to the town hall."


The guard didn't reply.

Isabelle carefully made her way towards the center of town. She wasn't the only one heading in that direction, and rather than searching for the town hall she simply followed a nondescript man of advancing years. The hall, a very simple but large one-room stone building, was surprisingly full. The town's residents seemed much more ordinary by daylight; most were just men and women in merchant-class clothing. Arthur was there and appeared to be in charge, much to his annoyance.

Arthur spotted Isabelle and pointed a swift, strict finger first at her and then at one of the chairs behind him. A fat man in rather fine clothes seated up at the front rose and addressed the assemblage.

"Now now, I know that it's rather early—or late—for some of you, but you all decided to join this society, and meetings are the price that you pay for that. We've got a problem; Arthur is going to fill you in on the details."

Arthur bowed to the townspeople as Isabelle and the fat man both sat down in empty seats at the front of the audience. "Last night, as some of you know, we had a little visit from one of Black Jong's press gangs. We ran them off and sent Jack Knifeman and the Triplets out to eliminate them, but the gang scattered and our four couldn't keep track of them all. Less than four hours later, we had six wolves under some sort of foreign influence checking out the town. The caravan's night guard single-handedly killed four of them and drove the other two off before Jack and the Triplets returned. I think that it's safe to say that we've been scouted; people know that we're here and that we're a threat." Arthur paused as a jumble of comments and exclamations surged forth. "There's more. We've got more information on outside affairs now that the caravan's arrived, and it's not good. Black Jong's army has already begun taking over the southeast corner of this forest. Elsewhere, the Imperial Guard is digging in and preparing fortifications; the Imperial Army launched a counterattack but has been forced to retreat to the Guard lines. Several of the best heroes left to the Empire have tried facing the army or some part of it and died fighting. Now that the Black Army knows that we're here, we aren't going to be left alone, and the Imperial forces aren't going to save us either. We have a problem."

Episode 10: . . . the tough get going.

A rough looking character near the front of the group stood up. He was appeared to be in his early forties, had several scars, and was missing his right ear. He glanced about at the people around him, then spoke.

"I'd like to say something."

Arthur nodded. "Go ahead."

"I'm not a very big fan of the Empire. Neither are a lot of people here. But I don't think that any of us would really like to see Black Jong in charge. Now maybe that's not going to happen, but there'll be a whole lot of blood and destruction before this whole mess is over. People are going to die. Now Black Jong's people are threatening us. They're invading our forest. They've got people working for them that can control wolves and take out Imperial heroes. Maybe not anyone as good as us, but we're not there anymore. We're here. And maybe we shouldn't be. Now I'll admit that a lot of us aren't in any shape to go running about with swords anymore, but some of us are. And people need us. People are going to suffer if we don't do something. A lot of us became heroes to stop that. Now we're trading our peace for others' pain. But I'm not going to sit here and let it happen, and neither are some of you I'll wager. I'm going to do something about it. Who wants to join me?"

Arthur cut off the first couple of volunteers. "I should like to point out a few things: First, we have several children in this town. Most of them are too young to go adventuring, but I can think of a couple that aren't. Now it's the parent's decision whether they go or not, but it would be a great time to get them trained in the family business, so to speak. Second, the caravan guards are both active adventurers—" Isabelle started; she hadn't realized that Silent Thunder was a hero as well. "—and can be sent out on this mission if they accept. Thirdly and finally, a lot of us have abilities such as information-gathering that have little to do with age and physical ability. Why don't you all go home and think it over for the next few hours? We'll hold a meeting for all of the volunteers at the tavern a couple of hours past noon. Anyone who's got an idea or a plan can present it then." He glanced over at the fat man who had opened the meeting.

The fat man rose and waved a hand. "Meeting adjourned." He then returned to his seat and the crowd began to disperse.

Episode 11: Grave matters, part I

Isabelle Ming spent several hours roaming the town. She wasn't good at talking to random townsfolk, and the local tradesmen such as the smith were all either busy or not in. After a while she stumbled across the town cemetery—it covered a small hill near the trees—and stared in awe and bafflement at the tombstones and mausoleums. A few graves had swords either sticking straight out of the ground or thrust into the headstones. One mausoleum was chained shut while another, the largest in the cemetery, stood open. The names carved into the granite slabs and sculptures dotting the earth were often legendary, and Isabelle spent more time remembering stories than she did walking amongst them.

Eventually Isabelle grew curious about the open mausoleum and decided to look inside. She entered it cautiously. Just inside the doors was an inscription carved into the stone floor:

          Here lies love;
          Here lies honor;
          Here lies memory;
          Here lies friendship;
          Here lies good cheer.
          Here lies empty graves.

Someone spoke behind her. "The tomb of those presumed dead or whose bodies were unrecoverable."

Isabelle spun around, her reflexes working faster than her thoughts; she recognized Arthur even as she realized that the mausoleum was distorting his voice.

"I dropped by to visit an old friend. Come on, I'll tell you about him."

Episode 12: Grave matters, part II

Isabelle followed Arthur across the cemetery to a grave marked by a small stone post with a yellow scarf wrapped about it. A momentary gust from the south made the scarf flap.

Arthur looked down at the earth in front of the post, then up at the scarf. "Well, Toji, it's been a while. It looks like there's going to be one last hurrah for some of us. I wish that you could be here; your talents would have really helped us out. Write a celestial poem for us, okay? And pray that I won't be joining you just yet." He paused and looked around at the graveyard. "There are too many of us here already. Be well, Toji." He turned and began walking back towards the village as the scarf waved goodbye in the wind.

Episode 13: Toji

Isabelle hurried to catch up with Arthur's fast stride. "That was Toji the yellow scarf, right?"

There was a momentary hitch in Arthur's step. "You know him?"

"He grew up not too far north of where I was born. I heard the basic story, but nobody knows what became of him."

"Here's the short form. Some of this you'll know already, but I don't know how much.

"Toji was sent to the Imperial Capitol as a diplomatic guest. Presumably his poetic and musical skills were meant to impress the Emperor. They did, for a while, and Toji was even granted his own member of the Imperial Courtesans as his partner. Unfortunately, the Emperor before the current one was very violent and suspicious. He took offense at something that Toji had sung and had Toji's courtesan, who like all Imperial Courtesans was an Imperial spy as well, present the command for suicide to him. The command is a yellow scarf. Reportedly, the spy was in love with him and fled the capitol after leaving the scarf on their pillow. Toji awoke and was so angry at being given the scarf that rather than kill himself, he put it on and swore to kill the Emperor instead. He was discovered by the Imperial guards, fled the capitol, and spent the rest of his life either trying to kill the Emperor or killing other unjust rulers.

"The Emperor died at an unrelated assassin's hand several years before Toji died here in town. The courtesan still lives here, and she has Toji's silver harp hanging on her wall."

Episode 14: Gathering storm

Arthur excused himself, saying that he had to get a few things organized at his house before that afternoon's meeting began. Isabelle went back to her room and spent the time before the meeting in the sort of quiet thought that usually occupied her as she rode guard for a caravan. When it was time for the meeting, she went down to the tavern and blinked in astonishment.

The room was comfortably crowded with an even stranger assortment of people than had occupied it the previous night. This was only part of what amazed Isabelle. The other part was the nagging feeling she had that the room had not been quite that large the last time she was in it. She had no way of knowing for certain, since she hadn't bothered counting tables or making any similar measurements, but she couldn't shake the feeling that its size had subtly grown to accommodate the crowd. She took a seat at the end of the bar by the stairs and took a better look at the people gathered there.

Max, the bartender, stood behind the bar with his arms crossed. His warhammer lay on the bar before him. To either side of him stood a guard wearing a breastplate and longsword. Two similar guards sat at the bar in front of the first two, and another two stood by the door. Arthur was at the end of the bar by the door, writing something on a small slate tablet that he had with him. The only other person sitting at the bar was a very beautiful lady of indeterminate age who had long black hair falling down past her waist. She seemed relaxed, but her eyes kept flitting over the crowd assembled before her.

The crowd sitting at the tavern's tables contained some familiar faces but many unfamiliar ones. Isabelle recognized the large man who had run the town meeting that morning, "Jack Knifeman," the two old men with staves from the night before, the dwarf from the night before, and a couple of the shady characters. There was even a figure in black sleeping in the shadows of the rafters towards the back of the room, but Isabelle couldn't see it well enough to tell if it was the other caravan guard or not.

The door opened and one of the more normal-looking male patrons from the previous night entered, pursued by the two women that he had been sitting with. One of them was waving her steel mandolin at him threateningly. The other trailed behind them, grinning as she watched. They claimed their previous table, and the bard snuggled up to the man, who put his arm around her. Isabelle blinked and looked away.

Arthur spoke up. "Looks like everyone's here; let's get this party started."

Episode 15: Casting call

Arthur moved to the front of the room. "First let's get an idea of how many people are here for what purpose. Could everyone interested in going adventuring move to my right and everyone here to offer advice move to my left? We can't plan anything if we don't know what we've got."

There was a brief shuffling of bodies, and when it was over there were a dozen or more people to Arthur's right. They included, Isabelle was startled to note, the three traders in charge of her caravan. The figure in black was now in the rafters over that group, although he or she was apparently still asleep. To Arthur's left was an equally large group with several of its members hidden in preternaturally dark shadows. There were also a number of people scattered about the room who hadn't moved to either side.

Arthur looked around and made a few notes on his slate. "Well, then. I'll be going out, as will Max and his boys here. Those are our mobile forces; who's got a plan?"

A dwarf sitting on the right shrugged. "Let's just charge Black Jong and kill him."

Arthur glared at the dwarf. "It's not that easy."

From the shadows on the left came an old, dry voice: "What's the immediate threat?"

Another voice in the shadows answered, "They know we're here. They're going to come after us."

Max nodded. "The south-east corner of the forest has been occupied by the rebel forces. We're in their way, and they know that we've got some powerful people here. They're not going to go easy on us."

"Then let's take out the local forces," the dry voice replied. "I'm sure some of us can delay them long enough for the others to knock down their command structure."

Arthur took a seat on one of the barstools. "The local forces are a supply division harvesting wood. It's a good group to hit."

"Hah!" The largest of the three caravan traders looked amused. "We all know how valuable supplies are, don't we?"

A man on the left, dressed in a plain black tabard over soft brown leather, asked "And are you going to be supplying us for free this time?"

"Of course not. We'll be charging you our normal rates, plus a wartime surcharge, plus interest. But we have a very convenient payment plan, plus our valued customer discount, plus we'll be making available some of our class-A stock."

"Hooray. So who's going to defend the town while you're all out doing this?"

An old man in faded scholar's robes spoke up from the left. "You and I are, of course. Along with everyone else who's remaining behind. I think that we can arrange some interesting . . . surprises for anyone who decides to show up here. I'd just prefer that we not have to deal with the entire army at once."

There were a few murmurs of agreement.

Arthur turned to the group that was to go adventuring. "So who's doing what?"

Max stepped closer to the bar. "You and I are the military experts here; we should do the main assault." He glanced over at Isabelle. "Want to come along, Miss Ming?"

Isabelle started. "I'm still under contract, remember?"

"Yes," said one of the traders, "you are. Arthur, Maximilian, I hereby appoint you honorary members of our caravan for the duration of hostilities. Isabelle, I'm assigning you to their protection. Any questions?"

"This wasn't in my contract."

"No, it wasn't. How's an extra five-thousand sound?"

"Uh . . . OK."

"Done. Gentlemen, you may continue."

Arthur nodded. "Can we get your other guy as well?"

"I don't see why not."

"Will he agree to it?"

"If we pay him he will."

Arthur laughed. "Good enough for me. Anyone else want to come?"

The first trader shook his head. "We'll do our usual job of traveling around, gathering information, getting supplies, rallying the people, and assassinating random antagonists."

The bard with the steel mandolin spoke up. "We'll wander around and find out what's going on. I can let some bards know to cover this."

"Thanks," said Max.

A teenage boy sitting with the right-hand group tilted his head to the side. "And what do you want me to do?"

"I think that it's time to teach you the family trade, kid," drawled Arthur. "You've been sitting here in this town for too long."

A girl, perhaps a year or two younger than the boy, leaned forwards. "I'd like to come, too."

Arthur blinked. "Well, I guess that would work." He looked past her to a pair of adults. "Is that OK with you two?"

The parents nodded.

"Well then. That makes quite a party; are the rest of you going to volunteer as well?"

The dwarf shook his head. "I think that the rest of us will be content just to harry them a little. You can have the fun of sneaking into the middle of the opposing army."

"Gee, thanks."

"You're welcome," the dwarf said solemnly.

That being settled, the meeting adjourned.

Episode 16: Parting gifts

Eleven of the twelve people who would be the primary strike force in the oncoming battle gathered at the front of the tavern. Thunder, the caravan's night guard, was presumably off sleeping somewhere.

Arthur waited for everyone to find a seat before speaking. "Introductions would probably be useful, given that one of our members isn't from here, but there are a few people who have business to take care of first." He nodded to a dwarf waiting outside of the group; Isabelle recognized him as the town smith.

The dwarf picked up a sheathed sword and mid-sized shield from the table next to him and strode over to the boy. "Since your family's all either dead or using their stuff, I thought that I'd make a couple of things for you." He handed over the equipment without ceremony and headed for the girl. "You'll find out most of what I did for you in a minute, but let me give you these now." He unslung a tube that he had been wearing on his back and opened one end of it. He upended it over the table next to the girl, and six golden arrows fell out. "Half-a-dozen phoenix arrows, since I know that your mother used the last of hers during the Fall Revolution."

There were several gasps. Arthur demanded "When did you learn how to make phoenix arrows?"

The dwarf looked at him and grinned. "I know a lot of things that you don't, sonny boy." He made his way over to the tavern door and left whistling.

Arthur shook his head. "I thought that the last person who knew how to make those died five-hundred years ago."

"I know," said a woman, entering the group. "But I always thought that the little guy knew more than he was telling."

Isabelle looked at the woman and decided that she must be the girl's mother. She had a longbow slung over one shoulder and a quiver over the other.

"You're going to need some equipment if you're going to go adventuring," the woman said to her daughter. "Your practice bow is nice, but it's not a combat model. Use this." She unslung the bow from her shoulder and handed it to the girl. Steel guard-plates on the front shone like new, and gold inlay ran along the entire length of the bow. "I had the smith refurbish and refit it. Looks rather better than the day I got it, actually."

The girl looked stunned. "But mother, your bow . . ."

"It's okay. Your father and I will still watch over you from afar, but I can't wield a bow like I once did. We want you to have that chance now." She removed her quiver and handed that to the girl as well. "And one thing from your father. . . ." She pulled a silver dagger from her belt and laid it next to the arrows. "Use them well." She left, joining a quietly sniffling man along the way.

Arthur looked around; the tavern was now empty of everyone but the eleven adventurers. "Well then. Let's get started with introductions, shall we?"

Episode 17: Plainstone special

Arthur glanced around at the group before starting. "All of you know Max. The six with him were sent by former members of the Lost Soldiers' Brigade, some of his friends. All of you know me; I don't like to run things, but I hate to see someone else screw them up."

He waved a hand at Isabelle. "Isabelle here is a freelance hero generally and a caravan guard currently. I'm told that she's very dependable."

Isabelle looked at him, suspicious. She hadn't told him that.

"She's originally from northeast of here. Our missing member is Silent Thunder, the night guard and generally mysterious swordsman. If you see a man in black sleeping somewhere, it's probably him. If you don't see the man in black, it's definitely him."

Arthur turned his attention to the boy sitting across from him. "The young man is Percy. He's not related to me, but he was engaged to my ward before she died and I took him in when his parents were killed. There's more to that story, but I'll leave it up to him to tell it if and when he wants to. I figure that it's time to teach him the family trade." Arthur glanced at the equipment sitting by Percy. "Would you mind if I looked at that sword?"

The boy handed it over silently.

"Thank you. Let's see. . . ." Arthur examined the entire sword carefully. It was a very plain, even austere, sword, devoid of all ornamentation and markings. "I thought so. It's a Plainstone special, the smith's own invention. Magical armour won't do any extra good against this. The shield is probably the same." He handed the sword back. "Would you like to introduce yourself?"

Percy stood. He was of average height and build, though clearly young, with short black hair and simple clothes. "My name is Percival, Percy for short. I'm sixteen. My parents knew Arthur and Arthur's brother. I was engaged to Arthur's niece at birth. Now I'm here." He paused for a moment, thinking. "That's about it." He sat down again.

Arthur nodded and looked at the last person in the room, the girl. "I'm afraid that I don't know much about you except for your name: Orlaith, daughter of Ceara of the Bow and Fintan the White Flame."

The girl nodded and rose. She was barely over five feet tall, with long red hair in a braid. Her movements were full of energy, and her short sleeves revealed strong arms. "My name is Orlaith. I'm fifteen years old and was born here in town after my parents retired. I'd like to carry on my parents' tradition of defending the Empire and helping those in need; I'd also like to see the world that I've heard so many stories about but never seen." She bowed and sat down.

Arthur checked off something on his slate. "That's that, then. Next up: Making this official."

Isabelle wondered what he meant by that.

Episode 18: We go to war

Arthur looked at Max. "Could I have those papers back now?"

Max nodded and carried several scrolls plus writing and sealing implements over to Arthur. After handing them over, the huge barkeep remained standing behind his unusually serious-looking friend.

Arthur straightened up in his chair, unrolled the first scroll, and signed and sealed it at the bottom of the text. Then he stood and pronounced his charge:

"By the power invested in me by the Emperor and the virtue of my former office, and in light of the current military situation, I hereby declare an Imperial military emergency. I furthermore recall myself to active duty as a Commander in the Imperial Guard, command branch, for the duration of this crisis, and I hereby assume command of the military forces and defense of this town." He paused and glanced down before turning to face Max. "Baron Maximilian Carlota, by virtue of my authority as a Commander in the Imperial Guard and your oath of fealty to the Emperor, I hereby recall you to active service in the Imperial Guard as a Captain in the command branch for the duration of this crisis and place you under my command." Arthur turned back to face the rest of the group. "To the six men-at-arms gathered here today: By virtue of my rank and your oaths of fealty to the Emperor, I hereby command your military service in the Imperial Guard for the duration of this crisis and place you under Maximilian's command. To the others gathered here today and to the one known as Silent Thunder: By virtue of my rank and authority here, I hereby press you into military service in the Imperial Guard for the duration of this crisis and place you under my command."

He paused and switched gears. "I hereby form the Imperial Guard, command branch, special unit number twenty-seven, codename Campion. It shall consist of two teams. Team number one shall be considered irregulars and shall consist of myself, Isabelle, Percy, Orlaith, and Thunder. My lieutenant is Max, who shall head team number two. Team number two shall be considered heavy foot and consist of the six men-at-arms gathered here. Maximilian, please appoint a sergeant from among your men to be your lieutenant. Should both we and they become incapacitated, the command authority shall rest with the second team." Arthur finished speaking and sat down in his chair, seemingly exhausted. After a moment he reached for the scrolls again and began to write out his orders.

Episode 19: Filler episode

Isabelle blinked and looked around at her equally surprised companions. "What was that for?"

Arthur looked up from his writing. "I can hardly condone random bands of people running around with weapons making war on anyone that they consider to be 'evil.' After all, if I did that then I'd have to accept Black Jong as well. This gives us the legal and moral justification to make war on behalf of the empire." He looked down again and continued writing. After a few minutes he finished and sealed the scroll, handing it off to Max when he was done. "Why don't we go see what the caravan's selling? They've always got strange, fun stuff in the class-A section."

Isabelle shrugged and rose to follow him out the door. She didn't know what he was talking about, but given the strange events so far she was willing to believe anything.

Outside was a small crowd. The traders were displaying a range of ordinary weapons, mainly swords and bows, but few people were paying attention and none of thom were buying. The head trader looked up as the group exited the tavern. "Ah. Now we can start." He waved a hand to one of the caravan's two handlers. The handler nodded and followed the third trader, a quiet, furtive man, to a point a short ways down the road. They stopped in the middle of the dirt path. The handler peered around suspiciously, as if he expected to be ambushed twenty feet from the nearest cover and fifty feet from the nearest person. The trader spread his arms and began chanting.

A thin blue line appeared vertically in front of the trader, running from the ground to four or five feet above his head. It widened into a sheet like a card being slowly turned from edgeways to broadside. Out of the flat blue expanse came riding a brace of horses and a tall covered wagon driven by a huge humaniform creature. The man—or so it seemed at first—was at least seven feet tall, although it was hard to judge while he was sitting down. He wore no shirt or hat and seemed devoid of hair. Around each wrist was a thin, gold band, too small to slide either up or off. His skin started out as a dark dirt brown, but quickly shifted to grey and black before sliding to brown again. The wagon rolled to a stop a little ways from the crowd. The blue gate snapped shut. Isabelle wondered why the hell the caravan needed her as a guard.

Episode 20: Class-A stock

Once the portal had vanished, the crowd surged closer to the newly-arrived wagon. Even the previously uninterested bystanders seemed eager to learn what it held. Arthur had disappeared, so Isabelle joined the crowd next to the wagon, as did Percy and Orlaith.

The trader who had opened the gate returned around the end of the wagon. He motioned for the crowd to join him, and the mass shifted towards him even as he enforced a ten-foot clearance from the wagon. When all was prepared, he whistled.

The shutters above the wagon's tailgate were slammed open by huge black hands with gold cuffs, likely those of the driver. The tailgate was likewise kicked open, unfolding to form a ramp. The interior of the wagon was as black as fine velvet.

"And now," called out the merchant, "a selected, limited release of T.P., M.M., and G.C. Incorporated's class-A stock."

There were great cheers at this pronouncement.

"Joseph, will you bring forth item number two-forty-one?"

After moment, the driver emerged from the wagon. His bare feet slammed into the metal-backed ramp, drawing attention to the thin gold bonds around his ankles. Over his shoulder was a small ballista. He got to the bottom of the ramp and set up the weapon, then stood back as his skin shaded from pitch black to a slightly mottled grey.

"We have here the famed ballista 'Thousand-Killer.' It's said that, when fired battle, it guarantees its side a thousand kills. That's limited by the number of enemy left, obviously, and no-one's ever confirmed the rumor, so we'll start the bidding at five-thousand before discounts, deals, fees, and surcharges. Do I hear five-thousand?"

A few hands went up.

"Got five. Six, anyone?"

There was a brief muttering amongst the crowd before a short figure of some sort emerged. It was three feet tall or so, humanoid, and bundled up so tightly in fur-trimmed leather that nothing more could be seen. Even the gap between its high leather collar and low helmet, a gap that exposed only it's eyes, was covered by a thick, black veil. The figure looked up at the trader. "Six."

"Got six; any seven?"

One of the first bidders raised his hand again.

"Seven up. Eight?" He looked back at the creature (or whatever it was).

The figure opened its mouth, but it was interrupted by the arrival of another. This one had dark green-red skin and was wearing only leather shoes and a hide loincloth. "Eight!" his voice crackled.

Before the trader could react, a voice in the back of the crowd thundered "TEN!!!" at a truly Stentorian volume. The sound-stunned crowd moved aside to reveal a third of these strange beings. He was a foot taller than the others, had light yellow-green skin, and wore steel-soled boots, leather briefs, and a steel helmet.

The trader started at the shout but quickly regained his composure.

"Going once? Going twice?"

"Eight," the bundled figure stated with icy determination. "Our bid is eight; I hold the purse-strings."

The trader sighed, rolled his eyes, and continued the bidding. "The triplets bid eight; do I hear nine?" He looked at the rival bidder, who shook his head. "Sold to the triplets for eight-thousand! Now if you'll just see my associate over there about payment . . ." He pointed off to the side where another trader stood waiting.

The bundled figure nodded and went over to the ballista. Reaching out with his left hand, he picked up the six-foot-long weapon and flipped it over so that it rested on his shoulder. He marched off towards the second trader as his brothers raced ahead of him.

"Joseph, bring out item two-thirty-six!" He paused while Joseph did just that. Item two-thirty-six turned out to be a solid-steel crossbow with an odd-looking grip on the underframe. "Solid-steel pump-action crossbow; fires solid-steel bolts, ten of which are included in the purchase price. Two-hundred-pound draw. Do I hear one-thousand?"

Only one person, a tall man with an eyepatch over his left eye, bid.

"Sold for one-thousand to the man with the eyepatch! Please see my associate for ammo details." He waved the customer in the direction of the second trader and continued with the auction. "Joseph, may we have three-thirty-six?"

Joseph complied, bringing out a long, dark-lacquered piece of wood similar to a walking stick or Silent Thunder's unusual sword. It was bound with fine red cord in a number of decorative or possibly mystical designs.

"Sorry, folks, but this one's already reserved." The trader set it aside.

The auction continued like this for most of the afternoon. Magical, famous, or otherwise special armor and weapons were brought out of the wagon and sold or leased to the townspeople. Isabelle didn't buy anything. When it was over, Arthur stopped by to tell her that she should meet with the other adventurers at the town hall.

Episode 21: Buying Thunder

To Isabelle, the town hall seemed a lot smaller the second time around. Once nearly everyone was there, however, it was clear how little space they took up. Even Max's footmen standing in a flying wedge formation behind him didn't fill much space. Orlaith and Percy sat at opposite ends of the same bench, eyeing each other suspiciously. Stretched out between them was the sleeping Thunder. Isabelle chose a seat up front.

After a moment, Arthur emerged from a small door in the front wall, near the podium. A second man followed him out, still wearing the black tabard and brown leather armor that he had worn at the meeting. Arthur threw the long, black reserve item from the caravan at the sleeping Silent Thunder.

Thunder's hand shot up and caught it. "What's this?" he asked sleepily.

"Your pay for accepting this mission."

"I don't recall accepting any mission."

"Look at the sword."

Thunder did so. After a moment he sat up and looked at it more closely. "Oh . . . my . . . god . . . Is this what I think it is?"

"If you're thinking that it's Soulless Shadow then you're right."

"And I get to keep this?"

"You get to use it for exactly one year starting today, if you accept this mission."

"Hmm. If I don't get to keep the sword then I want five-hundred-thousand when this is over."

Isabelle blinked. She was only getting 1% of that fee. Maybe it was time to re-negotiate her contract.

"A quarter of a million, final."

"Oh, all right. I might as well."

"Good; now pay attention."

Episode 22: Saint George Avallonis

Arthur gestured at the man in the black tabard. "This is our town minister. I thought that it would be appropriate if he said a few words prior to our going out; it's something of a tradition in this town."

The minister stepped forward and bowed. "This town hall serves as the local church, unless it's the other way around. There isn't much agreement on that. In any case, the people here worship in so many ways that we decided to keep this space as neutral as possible with one exception." He pointed to a huge painting hung some ways up the front wall. "Not even the atheists can object to that." The painting depicted a battleship of the largest size. It was somehow flying through the clouds towards the setting sun, and two dragons flanked it. Along the top of the painting were the faces of five men and two women, all of them benevolently looking out at he viewer. "The unofficial god of heroes and champions: Saint George Avallonis. He's an actual person; he and his six companions were last seen sailing off towards the dragon isles five-hundred years ago. That he will return in another five-hundred years is just wishful thinking, I'm afraid, but with a hero you never know. He's not really a god, but he was considered to be the epitome of heroism; praying to him has never been known to hurt."

Episode 23: No atheists in foxholes

The minister paused to give everyone a moment in which to contemplate the painting. Silent Thunder took the opportunity to unbind and examine his new sword. The minister continued. "I am told that you will be leaving tomorrow morning, so allow me to pronounce the blessing now." He cleared his throat. "Saint George, where-ever you may be, these twelve heroes are setting forth as you once did to defend the empire that you once championed. Watch over them and protect both them and your empire. I ask this as a devoted champion f your ideals; may peace and justice reign." The minister looked around at them. "Well, that's it. I have to go make plans for the town's defense; Arthur, it's your show." He left by the rear doors.

Arthur nodded. "You heard the man: We leave at dawn. Everyone go home and pack; we'll meet at the tavern in the morning. If anything happens during the night, get over to the tavern and wait for me. We may have to leave in a hurry. Thunder, wake up. You're on guard duty." Arthur left the same way that he had entered.

Isabelle went back to her room and waited.

Episode 24: "Anything happens"

Isabelle woke to the dark of the night but not to its silence. A song, not loud but somehow pervasive, had interrupted her sleep. The man, the man, the armed man . . . She rolled out of bed and pushed open the shutters on her window. A light flashed repeatedly at her from the tower rising above the town. The mysterious voice sang as Isabelle pulled on her armor and buckled her swordbelt, sang of an armed man who was coming and commanded those who heard it to arm themselves. Isabelle did so, stuffing her remaining personal items into her pack and running out of the door to her room. She headed for the stairs, intent on helping with whatever was going on.

Two shadowy forms flanking the front door to the bar were Max's men; Isabelle had seen them preparing to keep guard the previous evening. When she approached, one of them pointed past her and whispered "Back door."

Isabelle nodded and left, dropping her pack on the bar. The back door turned out to be behind the staircase, obscured from view. Isabelle slipped out of it and into a dark grey night.

She was clearly not the only one concerned by the mysterious song. Shadowy figures crouched alongside many of the buildings, looking around. One of them tried moving out into the open and two arrows missed him by inches, striking the ground. The arrows had come from the direction of the road, and their angle of impact suggested that the archers were up in trees. The villager dove back into the doorway that he had been hiding in.

A few seconds later, the song stopped.

Isabelle carefully made her way along the left-hand wall of the tavern and peered around the corner. The caravan wagons were there, but there was no sign of Thunder. Before Isabelle could decide what to do next, something bright flashed out of the trees across the road and flew into the covered wagon. A wordless roar issued from inside. A silver-rimmed silhouette stormed out, its only identification the gold bands around its wrists and ankles. The inhuman guard raised its right arm to the side, palm open to the sky. It clenched its hand and suddenly it was holding a javelin. As it cocked its arm for a throw, two more arrows shot out and hit it in the chest, glancing off. It's arm blurred and a white flash shot into the trees, the crack of exploding wood answering in place of thunder. The guard smoothly returned its arm to the position for summoning another javelin.

Isabelle turned away and walked back to the tavern door.

Episode 25: Light rain

A light rain began to fall, and someone unleashed the hounds.

Isabelle heard a sudden barking, somehow deeper and more threatening than she had ever imagined that a dog could be. A howl convinced her that these were no ordinary animals; she could feel the feral intelligence in it. Then one of them bounded around the right-hand corner of the tavern.

A wolf with glowing red eyes paused for a moment, growling at her. It leapt just as she drew her sword, a steel cavalry saber that she had bought from a retired soldier. Her slash caught it across the face, knocking its jaws away from her throat, but the impact of its body knocked her to the ground. She rolled out from under it, sending it in the other direction. She rose into a three-point crouch, her left hand pressed against the ground, even as the wolf did the same, preparing for another leap. A movement to her right caught her eye. She shifted position slightly and realized with a shock that another wolf had been approaching her from behind. Of course, she cursed herself, they're pack animals. This is how they always work. Isabelle slowly rose to her feet and began backing up.

A bright flash somewhere behind Isabelle and to her left was accompanied by a loud crack of tangible sound; lightning had struck somewhere very nearby. The wolf facing Isabelle flinched. Isabelle leapt. She skidded to a stop beside the wolf as her saber opened up its side, eviscerating it. She spun to face the second wolf.

The second wolf had its own problems. It jumped at a large figure carrying a glowing warhammer; Max swung with both hands and hit the wolf in the ribs. For a moment, the hammer flared blue so brightly that it left an afterimage in Isabelle's vision. A loud cracking could be heard, and the wolf bounced off of the wall of the tavern a few feet to the left of Isabelle. Before Max could recover from the swing, yet another wolf leapt at him from his left. Max's left hand let go of the hammer and shot out, grabbing the wolf by the throat. He threw it to the ground as he turned, and his hammer followed it down to split its skull. Isabelle looked away.

Max nodded at her as he passed by, entering his tavern through the back door. His four men not already inside followed him shortly. One of them stopped long enough to tell Isabelle, "We'll guard the door from the inside. Go see if the others need help." She nodded and ran towards the town square.

A trio passed her going in the other direction; Isabelle noticed that the bard's steel mandolin had grown a steel spike on the base and was dripping blood. The triplets came into view a moment later. The one that had bought the ballista had it over his right shoulder, his left hand steadying it and his right holding a cord that lead to the trigger. The tall one was sparking where raindrops hit him, and his helmet was blackened. The third steamed, raindrops sizzling and jumping off of his skin. They shot bolts off into the trees whenever one of the archers there gave away their position by attacking. Near the town square, Isabelle found her first human attackers.

Three bulky men with swords and shields faced Orlaith and a man whom Isabelle recognized as her father. Two more attackers lay still on the ground. Orlaith had dropped her bow and stood with a short sword instead.

Isabelle yelled "Hey!" and began to sprint towards them.

One of the attackers took a quick glance at Isabelle. A moment later, the three of them went for Orlaith and her dad.

Orlaith's father swung his longsword viciously at the attackers, roaring as he did so. White flame burst forth from the sword as it met the opponent's weapon; the attacker staggered backwards, dropping his shattered sword. Orlaith parried one of her two attackers, and an arrow gored the third. Isabelle glanced further along the road and spotted Orlaith's mom holding her own bow. The remaining attackers fled.

Fintan the White Flame called to Isabelle. "Get Orlaith to the tavern. Ceara and I will deal with the others here."

Isabelle nodded, and Orlaith grabbed her bow before running over.

"C'mon," Orlaith said. "The others are probably there already."

They left for the tavern at a slow jog.

Episode 26: Into the night by moonlight

Everyone was waiting in the tavern for Isabelle and Orlaith when they arrived. Arthur nodded at Isabelle when she entered, then glanced around at the others. "Everyone ready?"

There were nods of assent.

"Good. Obviously the enemy has better transportation than we expected; I suspect magic. We're leaving immediately so that the magi here can shut down all access to and from the outside world. As for us, the merchants have readied their wagons so that we can join with them for a short ways before splitting off. Hopefully the enemy will lose track of us. We're headed for the supply camp at the southeast corner of the forest in order to take out their boss and disrupt the supply train. Any questions?"

There was a scratching at the front door and a meow.

Arthur glanced towards the door and nodded, and one of Max's men opened the door just far enough to let in a beam of moonlight (Moonlight? But it was still overcast and raining. . . .) and a silver-furred cat.

The cat jumped up onto the bar and strode down to a point halfway along it, watching the gathering watching it. It sat down facing them, and a shimmer of moonlight later there sat a beautiful woman wearing a sleek, silver dress. Her hair shone like the moon now instead of being night black, but Isabelle still recognized her from the afternoon meeting at the tavern. The lady spoke: "Hullo, Arthur, Maximilian."

Arthur nodded. "Hullo, Em. Come to see us off?"

"If I may." She looked enquiringly at Max.

Max snapped to attention and inclined his head. "The bar is yours, my Lady."

"Thank you." She smiled for a moment, bathing the room in a soft, silver glow. Then she slid down from the bar, turned to face it, and lifted a pair of trays that had not been there a moment before. She turned and offered the silver goblets thereon to the assembled adventurers. "Drink up!"

They each took a goblet and did so. The ambrosia was smooth and silver, much like everything else having to do with that mysterious Lady. It had no taste, yet tasted more wonderful than anything that Isabelle had ever drunk before. It was also highly invigorating. As she put her empty goblet down, Isabelle glanced once at the strange hostess. When she looked back in front of her, the goblet was gone.

The Lady smiled. "May luck be with you."

Arthur looked at her sidelong. "I'm sure you will." He rose and grabbed his pack. "C'mon, people, we've got a war to win!"

They all grabbed their equipment and slipped out into the night.

End of Season 1.0

Season 2.0: Into the Woods

Episode 27: On the road again

Isabelle looked over at Arthur as they crouched in the back of one of the caravan wagons bouncing along the forest path. He had a strange gleam in his eyes and an almost cocky grin on his face. She shifted her weight uncomfortably. "Save the world often?"

Arthur tore his attention away from the passing trees and arced a critical eyebrow at her. "I wasn't aware that Black Jong had the resources to threaten the entire continent, much less the world. At worst he takes the capitol and finds himself so over-extended that the outlying Loyal Kingdoms go with Avallonis Redemption and march the better part of one-hundred-thousand troops into the capitol while the fifth-column loyalists harass the usurper and let the relievers into the city. None of that requires heroes such as you or I; it merely requires that everyday heroes follow their hearts and do their jobs." He went back to watching the trees go by.

"Err . . . I suppose you're right. Why are we here, then?"

Arthur's head snapped around and he stared at her. "Don't you—" His head snapped back to the passing trees. "This is our stop. C'mon!" His entire body flexed for a moment and sent him flying out of the back of the wagon to land, skidding, on the dirt of the path. He shifted positions and sprinted into the trees.

Isabelle, blinking, followed as quickly as she was able. Her natural agility let her soon catch up with his restrained power. They slowed down slightly and moved at a slow jog for another quarter-mile before stopping next to a small brook. Isabelle asked "Where are we?"

Arthur looked around once to confirm his location. "An agreed-upon meeting place for situations such as this. We have to keep a lot of things about the village a secret, so there have always been a number of ways of sneaking out when necessary. The others should be here presently. Our horses will be brought up the brook from a stream that it joins about half a mile that way." He pointed to the east, the direction that the caravan had been headed in. He paused, thinking. "Ah, yes." He turned to look at her. "I'm doing this because if I don't, my country is going to suffer. My people are in need of me. I have sworn an oath." For a moment his countenance was wrathful, but it drained back to his emotionless operating state as someone splashed their way up the stream. He drew his sword and waited for the approaching party to come into view.

It was the remaining members of the group, sans Thunder. Arthur did a quick head-count. "Where's Thunder?"


Isabelle and Arthur spun around. Thunder was leaning against a tree a few feet behind them.

"Well, then," Arthur commented, "That's all of us. The horses should be along shortly."

It was another half-hour before the horses arrived, being led up the brook by one of the caravan's handlers. "There's one for each of you. Try to keep them in good health; some of them are only loaned." He turned around and plodded back down the brook.

Everyone mounted their horse. It feels good to be back in the saddle, Isabelle thought. She glanced over at Arthur to see what came next.

Arthur drew his sword and held it aloft. He called out loudly enough that each of them could hear him clearly, "By this blade I pledge my life to service!" He paused while the other military men did the same, even Max with his hammer. "Special Unit Campion, move out!" They left at a trot, heading south-east.

Episode 28: Imperium

They made camp at dawn. Max, who appeared content to remain in his armor, was sitting next to Arthur, talking. Isabelle was near enough to overhear their conversation.

Arthur was looking down at one of his hands as he flexed it idly. "Do you feel it?"

Max looked over at him. "Feel what?"

"The Imperium."

"Yeah. A tingle when you recalled me to service; a thrill when you assigned me to Campion; a rush when we renewed our pledges. Think the others have it, too?"

"All of them do. Not much, and they probably haven't noticed the feeling, but it's there."

"It's not quite like being in charge of the Brigade again, but it's close. It's still nothing compared to being a governor."

"Yeah. Still, you ever wonder why they let you keep your armor? There's less than two dozen of those things, you know."

"I know. I guessed what was on the Emperor's mind when I could still feel the Imperium after losing my province. It's all about the hero teams, isn't it?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes." Arthur paused and looked around. "I guess I'd better brief the others on this." He rose to his feet and whistled to attract everyone's attention. When they had gathered around, Arthur looked at Isabelle. "Max tells me you did surprisingly well against those wolves. Are you always that quick?"

She shrugged. "I was near the top of my form, but nothing spectacular."

He looked back at the group and explained, "I think that all of you will find that you're at the tops of your forms until this whole affair is over or Campion disbands. You all feel a little extra energy, a little extra will, a little extra of something that's impossible to describe, am I right?"

There were nods and quiet words of assent.

"What you're feeling is called the Imperium. The Emperor has extended a tiny portion of his supreme power, the Imperium, to Special Unit Campion. He became aware of us the instant I declared Campion's activation. There is a great secret at work here: For all of the propaganda to the contrary, the Silver Order is not the Empire's last line of defense; we are. Special Unit Campion and the rest of the code-named units assigned to retired heroes such as myself, other members of the Silver and Gold Orders, successful military governors, members of the Imperial Family, and others whom I may not name have always been waiting to pick up the Empire's fallen banner and march onwards with it. As far back as the days of the first Emperor, Avallonis Rex, who led his band of heroes across this land to free it from the great evil that had then befallen it, it has been the heroes of the Empire who have been its true strength. We now venture forth in the footsteps of the greatest heroes that this world has ever known, from Avallonis Rex to Saint George Avallonis to Saint Albus of The Order of White. We are not employees of the Empire; we are the Empire. And there is nothing in this world that can prevent us from winning."

Episode 29: We'll make an intelligence officer of you yet.

Early that evening, once the group had resumed travel, Percy nudged his horse closer to Arthur and asked him "Who else do you think is leading another one of these squads against Black Jong?"

Arthur shrugged. "Who knows? You're the student here; consider this your first test. Who would you expect to see out and about?"

Percy blinked and thought about it for a moment, idly adjusting the green cotton blouse he wore underneath his leather tunic/armor. "Well, any hero who retired to the occupied farmland would have resisted the army's passing, but the reports brought by the traders indicate that the active-duty heroes have been killed and we haven't heard anything about a resistance movement. I doubt that there's anyone of any importance left behind the front lines. The last reports placed the front line about a third of the way into this kingdom, although they aren't so far in towards the western edge where we are. Anyone previously on standby in Avallonis is probably going to be arriving soon, as will be those on the eastern border who were remaining there in case Black Jong's actions sparked sympathy rebellions. Most people probably see this as a particularly bad flare-up of the border wars, not as anything earth-shattering, so the biggest names from northern and western kingdoms will likely hang back until the fight starts threatening the borders of Avallonis itself or things turn into a stalemate.

"I'd expect that heroes of the 3rd Frontier Strike Force are remaining in location even though the 4th Force has been wiped out. Anyone with ties to the 1st Special Operations Division will be moving on this, though, and are more likely to have a Special Unit number assigned to their use. The same goes for retired commanders in the Imperial Guard and possibly the Imperial Army, although Army troopers are more likely to target supply lines and occupied areas, and we haven't heard about anything like that. Likely they're meeting with no more success than the active-duty members of their old outfits, and traditional hero targets such as Black Jong's leadership structure are notoriously hard to find. I suspect magic of some sort, which can take a while for even experienced heroes to find their way through.

"Anyone with a mundane background isn't going to have any luck cracking the secrecy surrounding his operations, and support & supply ops are all in the hero-dead zone. I suppose that we're probably the group with the best chance at finding anything out on that count, since we're right next to one of their lumber-harvesting companies. The company is actually sitting on or around the front line this far west, so anyone following the same train of thought as me will be heading in this direction. On the other hand, there's not as much fighting this far west, although there is a valuable intelligence opportunity in the support operation that we're heading towards. I'd expect to see smaller groups, including a number of unique individuals, rather than Special Unit forces. We've got a pretty combat-heavy group and are heading towards the intelligence asset rather than a military asset in large part because it's what happens to be closest; anyone else is coming here because they're better at thinking than hitting things."

Arthur nodded, grinning widely. "We'll make an intelligence officer of you yet."

Episode 30: A day in the life (forest journey)

The night passed without incident. Out in front rode Percy, who would dismount and scout ahead whenever he deemed it necessary. He was entirely at home in the forest; often Isabelle wouldn't even realize that he had slipped away until she spotted him re-mounting his horse. A little ways behind him was Orlaith with her bow. The men assigned to Max rode in a loose six-point protective formation surrounding Arthur and Isabelle, while Max guarded the rear. Thunder's horse, it's rider asleep, wandered from the left flank to the right and back again. How Thunder avoided falling off was anyone's guess.

The six warriors assigned to Max were oddly silent, often coordinating their actions without saying a word. Three wore the colors of various nobles, two bore the patches of the knights that were their masters, and the last simply bore the insignia of the Imperial Legions without so much as an indication of whether he was from the Imperial Army or the Guard. Max himself bore no such emblem but was impossible to mistake for anyone else in any case. He did not so much watch the rear of the squad as he did ride along secure in the knowledge that someone could catch him entirely unawares and yet not incapacitate him quickly enough to prevent him from warning the others.

When they made camp for the day, Percy and Orlaith slipped off to obtain some fresh game. They had plenty of supplies, but conservation and fresh meat never were always a good idea. Percy was the better hunter when it came to stalking prey, but Orlaith was infinitely better with a bow. Thunder woke up when the food was ready, then disappeared up a tree where he napped on a branch until his shift was to begin. Another day or two of this and they would be at the south-east corner of the forest.

Episode 31: A Shinigami

Isabelle watched Arthur looking through a rough-bound book of parchment sheets sandwiched between two thin pieces of wood. "What's that?"

"Oh, it's just a record of various interesting people that I've met. I keep notes on those that might be useful to me later."

She blinked. "That seems a little cold."

"Nah. I remember a lot more than what's in this logbook, but I kept notes for the Empire. There's a clean copy sitting back at Silver Order HQ. Right now I'm looking through to see if there's someone that I've forgotten about who might be able to help us out here."


"Well, I haven't seen anybody so far, but I did run across an entry on someone that I met almost exactly one year ago. I wonder if I'll get to see her again?"

"One year ago? Did she stop by the town?"

"No, I was out on a recruitment mission for the Silver Order. They occasionally call old members out of retirement to do diplomatic missions like that."

"Really? So this isn't the first time you've gone adventuring since you retired?"

"Well, the others weren't combat missions. Not intentionally, anyway. This girl, for example,"—he flipped the book around so that Isabelle could see a sketch of the person that he was talking about—"is supposedly the priestess of a Shinigami, a goddess of death. Not that I've seen this 'Shinigami' in anything other than some artwork drawn by the priestess, but you get the idea. She lives in one of the other Imperial Kingdoms but was forbidden to join the military until she was older. I still hold out hope that we'll be able to get her some day, but it's not very likely."

"I'm sorry. Did you recruit anyone else?"

"Nope. I had a lot of promising leads, but none of them ever contacted us."

"Well, don't try to recruit me. I've already got a job."

"You're a freelancer," he said, grinning. "You don't want the steady support of a job with Avallonis?"

"No." Her voice was hard.

He shrugged and put the book away. "It's time to sleep; we've got a long ways to go yet."

Episode 32: The hall of twisted mirrors

Isabelle leafed through Arthur's book of people that he had met. He had left it out when he went to sleep, and she was curious to see if she was in it. She didn't find herself, but she did find a few other interesting entries. She stopped to read one under the bland heading "Internal Diplomacy Corps: Troubleshooting Teams."

TST codename: "Twisted Mirrors"

Diplomat: "SabreCat"
Secondary skill: Leader
Notes: Named for his choice of weapons and feline qualities; a moderate and probably the only person who could hold this group together

Sage: Tani-ro
Secondary skill: Poet
Notes: Dispassionate & analytical

Guard: Adulath II
Secondary skill: Reproductive activities / innuendo
Notes: "Wandering, innuendo-slinging bastard bard" driven mainly by natural desires and partially by a love of annoying Kali-ra

Religious expert: Kali-ra
Secondary skills: Combat and mothering
Notes: Female, unlike the others; belongs to the Church of the free states, devoutly, including those parts that let her disagree with it; violently feminist; often fights with Adulath

Opposition: Nirin-khai
Secondary skill: Sarcasm
Notes: Does his job a little too well; unclear why he remains with the others

Prophet: Marc Yves
Secondary skill: Creativity
Notes: Has dream-visions (very abstract); fairly withdrawn; possible counterbalance to Nirin-khai

Trainee: Kithia
Secondary skill: None
Notes: Female; shy and insecure; relative newcomer

She put the book back where she had found it and went to sleep. A short while later, a man in black climbed down from the tree where he had been napping and began leafing through the pages.

Episode 33: Tactical planning

At the end of the next night, they came to the supply camp. The loggers wouldn't be out for a little while yet, so they could come to the edge of the trees without worrying about someone stumbling across them. The camp had made ample use of the lumber available to them; a log palisade surrounded the tents and even some wood buildings. There was a clear cart-path running away from the camp on the far side from the trees. They led the horses back into the woods far enough to avoid detection and met to plan strategy.

Arthur took charge immediately. "Team two, you're E&E. Max, get to work on your tacticals."

Max and his six men moved to form a separate group.

Arthur faced the remaining team members—except Thunder, who was asleep again—and explained his plan. "Team two will maintain an exit and extract us if necessary; you shouldn't worry too much about that. Our job is to penetrate the enemy camp, assassinate their leader, and retrieve whatever information we can about their operations. Going in is going to be the hard part because leaders themselves are rarely very good at combat; that's what the army's for. I've seen this camp layout before and have the most command experience, so I'll take point. Isabelle, you have my back. Orlaith, you are to provide close-range archery support from five feet behind her. Percy, make sure that nobody closes to melee range with Orlaith. Going out it will be extraction forces, Orlaith with her bow, Percy behind her, and Isabelle and I will spread to provide trailing cover for the flanks. Got that?"

Everyone nodded.

"Good. Now, here are the tactical scenarios that we might have to adjust for. . . ."

Episode 34: Forced Entry

It was shortly after midnight when they attacked. Two guards slumped at the camp gate facing the forest; Orlaith had put an arrow in each of them before either could make a sound. The camp was silent except for the snores of the sleeping lumberjacks, and the only movement was the wind in the tents, but a light still burned in the upper windows of their target: the central log building.

Isabelle was no stranger to sneak missions; as a lone freelancer, it was often the only way to survive. Still, she had to admit that she was better mounted than sneaking about on foot. Arthur matched her in skill at sneaking, but just barely, and Orlaith was worse, but Percy . . . Percy was running circles around Orlaith and making less noise than Isabelle would have standing still. That kid was worth keeping an eye on, if you could find him. Isabelle shuddered to think what he would be like if he ever took lessons from Silent Thunder.

The group was almost to the central building when the wolf saw them. None of them saw the wolf at first, but they certainly heard its howl. So did quite a few other people.

Arthur started sprinting a half-second after the howl began. "Go!"

They went.

Arthur hit the front door to their target and went crashing through. A sword-point bounced off of the curved back of his breastplate; Isabelle, close behind him, ran straight into the blade. The guard, who had been waiting just inside the door, tried to draw the edge back across her chest, but she instinctively punched forward with her saber, sending the blade bouncing back off of Arthur. Arthur was already turning, and his counter-stroke crushed the side of the guard's skull.

Orlaith and Percy followed Isabelle in. Isabelle slammed the door.

Episode 35: Incoming fires

The door's wooden bar had been broken by Arthur's entry, but the dead guard's sword served as a replacement. Arthur started towards the stairs, which ran straight up to another door. Orlaith had an arrow drawn and aimed at it, while Percy was quickly searching for any papers of interest on the first floor. Isabelle followed Arthur up the stairs, Orlaith covering them from behind and Percy following a moment after. Arthur adjusted his shield-strap and then kicked in the door.

All hell broke loose.

Arthur, following his initial momentum into the room, was on his second step when he said "Oh shit!" and hit the floor sliding, his shield up.

All Isabelle had time to see was a blur of flame before she was thrown backwards.

Orlaith had just enough time to realize what was going on and duck the flying Isabelle before she popped back up and snapped off two shots at the lady who had been waiting for them.

Percy caught Isabelle and held her while she regained her balance; then he charge past Orlaith, giving a warscream fit to raise the dead (or at least distract the lady inside the room).

Isabelle's world shifted from fast chaos to slow chaos as her battle instincts finally hit high gear. Orlaith was crouched, knocking another arrow—no, two arrows; Percy was relieving his surrogate father; Arthur was crouched behind his shield, reaching for his horn; and in the center of it all was a lady wearing black with gold trim, red fire in her left hand and a sword in her right. Isabelle tapped Orlaith on the shoulder. "Guard the front door; I'm going in."

Orlaith spun in her crouch, re-focusing her aim on the entry door.

Isabelle ran forward, taking the four steps in two leaps. Her saber at the ready, she dove at the mysterious lady just as another ball of fire blew apart a wooden chair that Percy had kicked into the air as a distraction. The lady danced out of Isabelle's way, the pressure of three people in the relatively small room with her driving her towards the window. She blew the shutters open with another blast of fire even as she parried Percy's thrust at her.

Alarum! Arthur's horn rang out. Alarum! Alarum!

The lady backed towards the window, putting one foot on the sill in preparation for a jump. She glanced over at Arthur. "I would have expected a much better fight had I known that Arthur Avallonis himself would be leading the charge." So saying, she pushed herself backwards out of the window even as she let loose with one final burst of energy that filled the room with lightning, blinding everyone inside, searing their flesh, and setting fire to the walls.

Arthur blew the call for extraction.

Episode 36: Burning room = not safe

There is a moment in most people's lives where they think "Oh shit, I'm gonna die," but then they don't. People who don't have this moment fit into four categories: the ones who never see it coming, the ones who are too optimistic to believe it, the ones who die, and heroes. Heroes never have that moment because they know that they're going to die and they just don't care.

Orlaith had been spared all but a little of the blast. Within seconds of seeing what was going on, she had her arrows in her quiver, her bow across her back, and resolution on her face. She charged into the flaming room.

Arthur was the least affected of them all, being more stunned than anything else. Orlaith grabbed him by the straps of his breastplate and heaved him towards the exit, trusting him to make it the rest of the way on his own. She seized a burning table and pulled it away from Percy, whom she bum-rushed to the stairs and trusted to find his own way down one way or the other. Isabelle had received a direct hit twice now, and it was a wonder that she was even alive. Orlaith carefully grabbed an arm and a leg and slung Isabelle across her back, grunting from the effort of lifting the much heavier woman. She staggered to the top of the stairs under this heavy burden, where she was met by the mostly-recovered Arthur; they split the weight of Isabelle between them and made their way carefully down the steps.

The fire was clearly growing; it was time to get out of there.

Episode 37: Primitive meatheads

The front door shattered inward, but it was only Max and the boys. Max barked "Situation report!" even as his men were moving to secure the area.

"One down, no dead, all P.A.F."

"Area secure; ready for exit."

"Exit's a rumble; we're circled."

Max nodded, then looked to Arthur. "I was wondering when you were going to let me return the favor."

Arthur grinned. "Even after this you'll only be halfway there, my friend."

He shrugged. "Whatever."

"So guess who the commander of the camp turned out to be."


"Aurora Elendur. A top-notch Class-B running a logging camp. What in Heaven's name is going on here?"

An eyebrow twitched. "Interesting. Now that my boys have got your casualty, let's get out of here before the place finishes catching on fire."


Four of Max's men led the way out of the front door while two carried Isabelle. Max himself was in the lead. The situation outside was as one of them had said: They were encircled by angry loggers with axes, plus a few better-armed guards. No-one wanted to make the first move, so Arthur stepped forwards, raised his horn to his lips, and blew the fanfare of the Imperial Legions.

"Listen up, you primitive meatheads! Special Unit Campion of the Imperial Guard has taken over this camp. Now I have neither the patience nor a legal requirement to take any of you prisoner even if you surrender to me, but I'm not going to let you stay here, either. You've got two choices: promise me that you're not going to aid Black Jong any more, go home, and don't let me catch any of you poaching trees in my forest ever again, or stay here and die; there is no third option. Now who is going to get the hell of of my country and who is going die over this stupid, illegal invasion?"

The humans scattered, but then the wolves came creeping out of the shadows.

"Oh bloody hell," muttered Arthur. "What Class-A idiot is doing this?" He took a defensive stance.

Episode 38: Deus ex ballista

Max stepped forwards. "I really wouldn't recommend that," he said to the darkness beyond the wolves.

The wolves growled.

"Okay, have it your way." He folded his arms across his chest. "Have at me."

A wolf leapt. There was a flash of lightning, and a wolf with a smoking hole through it fell at Max's feet. A crossbow bolt wreathed in fire lit up the darkness where a cloaked figure was hiding.

Arthur straightened up and grinned at the figure. "It would seem that we have you outnumbered."

The figure hesitated for a moment before growling and raising its hands as if to throw something, but a ballista bolt ended that. Isabelle shuddered at the drops of frozen blood that were now scattered about.

The wolves, suddenly freed from outside control, dispersed.

After a few moments, a familiar figure run up to Arthur; it was the tallest of the triplets. "Heyboss! Strangemovementinthenortheastofcamp; Oneeye'scoveringit."

Arthur nodded. "Max, deal with it."

Max saluted and jogged off, followed by his men.

After a couple of minutes, a somewhat confused-looking Max returned alongside a stranger in his mid-twenties. This stranger was of average height, perhaps slightly taller, with a very athletic build, and wore monks robes of primary blue; straw sandals, tan skin, blue eyes, and curly blue-black hair where he hadn't been tonsured completed the ensemble. He had a huge grin on his face and what appeared to be the remains of shackles dangling from his wrists.

Behind the two came Max's six men guarding a hobbling Aurora.

Ever further back was the man who had bought the solid-steel crossbow; his eyepatch left little doubt regarding the identity of "One-eye."

Arthur looked to the crossbow-toting newcomer. "Are we clear?"

One-eye lifted his eyepatch and surveyed the area with what appeared to be a perfectly normal eye. "Yep." He replaced the patch.

"Good. Now, Miss Aurora, would you mind telling me what in the Emperor's name is going on here?"

Episode 39: Party members: Collect all eight!

Aurora shrugged. "I twisted my ankle jumping out of the window and got caught by your boys here. Don't ask me about the guy in blue; for all I know, he's just monking around."

The apparent monk grinned and flexed. "As a matter of fact—"

"As a matter of fact, I didn't ask you a question," Arthur shot back. "Aurora, what the heck is a woman of your caliber doing in charge of a logging camp? I can understand keeping a Class-A away from physical combat, and a Class-C might not have enough magic skills to bother employing, but a balanced Class-B like yourself is wasted out here."

Another shrug. "Don't look at me. Maybe they knew that you were out here."

"I doubt it. Next question: What's a girl like you doing in an invasion like this? You usually have better judgement than that."

"Hey! I'm just trying to help liberate some of slave-states that you call 'republics.'" She glared at Max. "Would the 'Governor' to explain the political realities to you, or will you take my word for it?"

"At this point you're 'liberating' trees from a forest inside the border of one of the original kingdoms of the Empire; the king here enjoys about as much power as the head of your native city-state and considerably more protection."

"That doesn't make it okay for Imperial forces to invade peaceful border territories like Sark!"

"Wait a minute, that war started when Free City forces attacked us from Sarkian territory."

"Err . . . it did?"

"Yes! And last time I checked, Black Jong was spending that time learning how to meet new friends and influence people by helping the sponsor governments cover it up."

"Oh. Well, that doesn't justify your military dictatorship."

"An Black Jong's press gangs are any better?"

"He's using press-gangs?"

"I see why he wanted you away from the main army."

"Alright, how's this: I don't like you, and I'm not sure that I like Black Jong either, but right now I want some answers from him; I'll join you for as long as that takes." She paused and glanced at her ankle. "Besides, I'm injured, and you've got the numerical advantage. One-on-one and healed I'd only be your equal."

"Your offer is accepted; we can work out specifics later." Arthur turned to the blue-robed monk. "And what's your story?"

The monk grinned and held out his hand to shake. Arthur ignored it. "I'm just passing through; the guards here picked me up when I wandered by looking for somewhere to spend the night. When I heard the ruckus outside, I broke the stocks, beat the guards with my chains, and came on out to see what was going on."

Arthur looked to Aurora; Aurora nodded.

Arthur: "What's your name, kid?"


"Where're you heading?"

"Nowhere. I'm just traveling about, seeing what I can see."

"Martial-arts training?"

"Of course!"

"Feel like wandering our way?"

He shrugged. "Don't see why not."

"Great; consider yourself a camp follower."

"Uh . . . okay."

Arthur glanced around at the rest of the group. "Well, boys and girls, it looks like we've got ourselves a party."

They all grabbed their equipment and slipped out into the night.

End of Season 2.0

Season 2.5: Battle on the Plains

Episode 40: Combat-happy patients

Back at the camp, Isabelle found a stranger sitting next to Silent Thunder. Arthur and the others, however, seemed to have found a friend.

Arthur sat down near the white-cloaked newcomer. "Hey there, Q. On your way to the village?"

"Yeah. I figured, 'People tend to get hurt fighting wars; maybe I should check on my combat-happy patients.'"

"Good thought. We've got some fire and lightning victims and a hurt ankle; mind looking them over?"

"No problem."

Isabelle was the most seriously wounded, so she received the most immediate attention. She spent the time studying the medic: He was above-average height, thin, with short, dark hair and brown eyes. He looked like he was probably from an area to the east of where she was born; she wondered what he was doing this far to the southwest.

Q spread a salve on several bandages and dressed her wounds before moving on to Percy.

Episode 41: Q, contracts, and trust

While Dr. Q tended to the other patients, Isabelle talked to Arthur. "Q?"

"Like the letter. He got nick-named that after a case of mistaken identity."

"I see."

Q finished with Orlaith and moved towards Aurora; Arthur stopped him.

"Just stabilize her; she's a prisoner and I don't want her able to run easily."

Q nodded and continued. When he was done with her, he rummaged around in the long bag that held his supplies and produced a short staff entwined with a carving of an Æsculapian snake. "Here; use this."

Aurora took the staff and examined it. "You do realize that I'm at least as deadly with a staff as with a sword?"

"Yes, but with that ankle you're still no match for this entire squad by day or Thunder with Soulless Shadow by night."

Aurora blinked and looked over at Silent Thunder. "I see."

Thunder stirred. "Hey, guarding prisoners isn't in my contract."

Aurora grinned evilly.

"Look," interjected Arthur, "We're all tired here; I'm trusting you to guard yourself and not run off so that we can get some rest."

Everyone stared at Arthur. Percy questioned, "Is that a good idea?"

Aurora thumped Percy on the head with her staff and glared at him.

Arthur laughed. "Percy, I'd trust her sooner than I'd trust the Emperor, and I'd trust him before I'd trust you."

Percy blinked and sat down.

Episode 42: Cooking rotation

Morning came. Isabelle woke, wincing as she stretched, and looked about. She was the last to wake: Aurora was explaining to Arthur that as long as she was a prisoner, she didn't have to be on the cooking rotation, and Ardon was showing off his cooking skills and not doing too poorly. Q was talking to Silent Thunder, who was actually talking back. Percy was watching Aurora with evident curiosity while Orlaith laughed at Ardon. The others were nowhere to be seen.

Now that there was more light and less distractions, Isabelle could see that Q's hair, which she had thought to be black, was actually a very, very dark brown. He was wearing a white tunic beneath his dust-stained cloak, and had on brown traveler's boots. He seemed to be in high spirits.

Breakfast was had, and Max returned with his boys. He briefed the assembled heroes. "Okay, here's what we know: The majority of Jong's troops are stretched out to the east of us. However, his best people are supposedly in some second task force that this lumber camp was supplying. They've been requisitioning enough supplies that they've got to be building something big, like a fort or siege weapons, but right now your guess is as good as mine. They've evidently been using some sort of gateway magic similar to the merchants at the village, so we can't track the supply trail, but at least that explains the presence of a class-A sorceress in the camp. Unfortunately, she's dead, so we can't ask her anything. Aurora was here to provide protection and oversight for the camp, not to deal with magical issues, so she doesn't know where the supplies were going.

"The only thing that we can do right now is help defend the line to the east and hope that our actions draw out some of the big guns on Black Jong's command staff. Q will go to the village and then do field rounds, One-eye's staying here to keep an eye on the army's west flank, and the triplets are already heading east. We'll be heading a bit north-east; Q says that Jong's army has made a rapid advance in that area since we left the village." He turned to Arthur. "Commander?"

Arthur nodded. "Pack up, everyone; it's time to move out."

Episode 43: A time to talk and a time to act

It had been raining for two days. Isabelle glumly reminded herself that the rains at that time of year were far worse in her hometown, but it didn't help much: she was still getting wet. They had met and killed an enemy scouting party, and Aurora was still arguing with Arthur over various aspects of politics and religion. She seemed skeptical of some of what Arthur was saying but hadn't tried to escape. Of course, her ankle wasn't completely healed yet. Isabelle sighed and tried to ignore Ardon's poor advances towards Orlaith. Silent Thunder slept.

On the morning of the third day, the clouds cleared. This seemed rather inconsequential in light of what followed. On the morning of the third day, Isabelle woke to the sounds of battle. Thunder had shaken her awake, and was already moving to do the same to Percy by the time that she realized what she was happening. They had camped in a grove on the southeast side of a hill to avoid being stumbled across by enemy patrols, and sometime during the night an enemy force had passed to their east and was now engaged in battle. Isabelle grabbed her armour and began to ready herself for the fight.

Orlaith, although woken last, had the least armour to don and thus was the first one ready. She immediately set out on a scouting mission. Percy, with his youthful quickness, tied Isabelle, and scouted in a slightly different direction. Arthur finished at the same time and began conferring with Aurora. Max and his men continued getting ready as Thunder, off-duty again, fell asleep. Soon everyone was ready and the scouts had returned.

Percy spoke first. "The enemy appears to be a combined-arms group led by a Captain, or whatever their equivalent is. They're on foot and have a good mix of front-line troops, archers, a few magi, and a support squad."

Isabelle interrupted him. "Two magi. At least, only two that are doing anything."

Percy looked a bit surprised that she had spotted what he couldn't, but continued. "The defense force looks like one of our Captain-led units rather than a full group, but are front-line infantry and have the high ground. The enemy seems content to attack them from the front rather than encircling them and provoking final defensive measures."

As he was speaking, Orlaith used her knife to sketch the unit positions in the dirt. "There's no cover between us and the defenders, so we might not make it if we try to join up. If we attack the enemy directly, we'll definitely be on our own, but we won't have to deal with as many front-line troops before hitting their auxiliaries."

"And," pointed out Arthur, "it will definitely cause some chaos as they try to shift their—"

A great fanfare filled the air. It was not so much loud as all-encompassing; it seemed as if the very land itself was calling out. It had a reasonably uplifting effect on Isabelle and most of the others, but the change on Arthur's face was incredible. He sprung up, lifted his own horn to his lips, and echoed back the call. In an instant he was at his horse; he mounted and was gone.

Episode 44: Battle on the Plains: the charge

The heroes following Arthur emerged from the trees on the west side of the battle. Isabelle was mounted; the others, on foot. Arthur was mounted and waiting for them.

He pointed to a banner flying in front of the defenders northeast of them. "Johan Lord Summerson, last of his line and member of the Silver Order." Below them, troops shifted to face the heroes' hill. "He has set his banner and will die where he stands rather than retreat, although he could quite probably take out the entire enemy force by himself." Standing up in his stirrups, Arthur shouted down at the enemy, "And I am Arthur Avallonis, loyal subject of His Majesty, and I ride to the Order's aid!"

Isabelle rode close at Arthur's back. Several arrows passed them up, presumably loosed by Orlaith. Isabelle could hear someone running closely behind her—probably Percy, given his speed—but could not sense the others.

Arthur hit the enemy's west line like an avalanche, crushing everyone in his path. He slowed down only gradually as he found himself surrounded. Isabelle could not keep up, although she managed to ride in his wake until she too was well behind the front line. Unfortunately, she was weak when she couldn't remain in motion; she decided to fight her way back and make another pass.

When Isabelle wheeled her horse around, a startling sight was revealed: a small whirlwind of activity centered on Ardon. The monk, while seemingly clueless and inept at everything else, had kept up with her charge despite being on foot and was actually quite proficient at the art of combat. If he's this good, how did he manage to get himself captured? He wasn't leaving many visible injuries, but a fair number of soldiers were clutching at their anatomy and retreating. Isabelle took advantage of the chaos to make good her escape.

The caravan-guard-cum-hero was in the middle of her second pass when Lord Summerson's standard fell.

Episode 45: Summerson's fall

It was not a pretty sight. One moment Johan Lord Summerson had been holding the line against the enemy, surrounded on three sides but undefeated, and the next moment he and his standard erupted in a storm of fire, lightning, and ice as the enemy's magi simultaneously dropped their disguises and attacked. Even after that hideous torture, the ripped and charred but still defiant standard flew for nearly half a minute. Orlaith sent several arrows winging towards the attackers, but the other heroes were too far away; there was nothing that they could do. At last the massed enemy overran Lord Summerson's position, and his emblem wavered and slowly fell.

The attacking crowd cheered. Not so the defenders.

Arthur's reaction could be seen from half the battlefield away: His opponents quickly gave him a wide berth, scared away by the the sheer force of his rage. "No!

"For the glory Avallonis! For Lord Summerson! For the land, the people, and my king!" His equipment seemed transformed. His sword, lifted to the sky, flickered with golden fire; his shield shone with the emblem of the Order. None dared approach; none needed to.

Arthur hardly needed make contact to inflict casualties on the enemy. He charged up the hill towards Johan's fallen standard; attacks were parried or simply bounced off of his armor, while his sword swept through the enemy as if through air. Isabelle and Max and his force cut their way north towards him, supported by arrows from behind. The battle's momentum reversed itself for the second time in as many minutes.

Episode 46: Bad company

Unfortunately for Orlaith, the sudden surge northward left her with only Percy for a bodyguard. A group of the enemy's rag-tag rear line broke off from its formation and headed towards her.

Percy's combat training and skills focused on open, natural spaces where he could run; he was not so good at fighting when surrounded by enemies. Then again, few people were. Orlaith rushed forward, her short-sword stabbing furiously, but was quickly taken down and disarmed by the aggressors. They wouldn't have stopped there, but Percy's shouts had attracted more than just Orlaith. . . .

"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!?" demanded an enraged Aurora.

One of the more twisted men looked up and seemed to recognize her. "Taking our share of the spoils before we kill them, of course."

"This is supposed to be a war of honor, righting the wrongs that have been done to us, not a war of retribution or revenge."

"It's neither," the thug snapped back. "It's a war for power and control; nothing more, nothing less. 'Revenge' is a way of motivating the dumb masses, just as in every war." He shifted in his crouch by Orlaith's right wrist.

"What kind of—"

Orlaith's wrists and ankles were sill being held down by three men. "Damn you!" she spat. "You shall not defile me!"

Arthur felt the ensuing spike of power from across the battlefield.

A soft golden glow seemed to coat Orlaith as she struggled against her captors. She finally wrenched her right arm free and knocked the talkative soldier back a good ten feet. The others, even those restraining Percy, let go and stepped back quickly. Orlaith rose and, with a literal blaze of glory, burst into golden flame.

Percy looked annoyed. "Why didn't you do that earlier?"

Episode 47: Don't make her mad

Orlaith's golden aura was hard to miss from almost any position on the battlefield, and the enemy magi immediately counterattacked this new phenomenon.

Aurora saw the size and angles of the incoming magics and cursed. She threw the strongest magical shield that she could manage around herself and several of the "enemy" soldiers. Fire, ice, and lightning struck simultaneously, bathing the entire area in painful energy and screaming zones of disharmony where the effects overlapped. Aurora and the soldiers were battered painfully but not seriously injured.

Orlaith's aura had flared outwards into a convex shield. She was untouched by the attack, but she was mad. A single arrow shot out over the enemy; at the top of its arc, a great bird cry was heard, louder than the scream of any eagle. The fiery form of a phoenix unfolded itself. It flapped its wings, struggling to gain altitude and sending down a rain of flames. As it gained height, the image slowly faded until nothing remained but the desolation beneath.

The surviving enemy surrendered.

Orlaith's aura disappeared. She sat down, stunned and exhausted. Aurora helped Percy bandage his wounds, while Max supervised the disarming of the prisoners. Arthur knelt by Lord Summerson's body. Isabelle knelt by Arthur.

"Damn it," Arthur cursed. "Why here? This wasn't some important border or tactical line that had to be held at all costs. We've lost too many good heroes to this stupid invasion; why can't idiots like Black Jong let us die in peace?"

Isabelle couldn't answer that question.

Episode 48: Johan Lord Summerson, the last of his line

They buried Johan where he fell: Arthur conducted the funeral and gave the eulogy. "Johan was born nine months after the death of his father in battle and was immediately recognized as the twenty-third Lord Summerson. He followed family tradition by training hard and joining the Royal Guard to serve his King. He loved that job, but he never forgot his duty to produce an heir; unfortunately, none of his loves ever turned to lasting romance and marriage. At the end of his combat postings with the Guard, he requested and was granted membership in the Silver Order. He was the sixth Lord Summerson to do so, a record in the Order. Now he has died at age forty, his endless summer spent; he has fallen and lies dead in an eternal winter that does not lead to spring.

"In accordance with the dictates of the Order, here we have placed him upon his shield and covered him with the land that he died defending. May it protect him in death as he protected it in life." Arthur took up Johan's sword and drove it into the ground in place of a headstone. "His sword shall remain so long as no-one has need of its power. Thus has it been and always will be for those who pledge their lives to service."

He stepped back and blew a single mournful note on his horn, a sound that resounded to the heavens. And Heaven replied: A single beam of golden light lanced down out of the blue sky, bathing the burial mound in its holiness. When the light lifted, it left behind the following words engraved in stone:

          Here sleeps Lord Johan,
          The last son of summer,
          Where his blood spilled
          In defense of the Land.

Episode 49: Four Flags over the Lord-at-Large

A little while after the funeral, Arthur had a brief conversation with Orlaith. Isabelle wasn't close enough to tell what it was about, but she did hear the words "Imperium" and something about meeting the Emperor. Apparently Orlaith's unexpected light show was something more special than usual, even given their traveling companions. After that came the debriefing of the captives.

Arthur made Aurora attend the interrogations, and Isabelle watched as well. They were appalled by what they heard: Rape and pillage all across the land, scorched-earth policies to ensure the remaining population's reliance on the occupying forces for food, and more talk of conquest than of freedom. Food from captured land was apportioned first to the officers, next to the volunteers and their families, and only at the last to the conscripts and the pro-occupation villagers.

Halfway through the prisoners' questioning, Arthur was called away to see something, and the two ladies followed. Approaching the temporary detention area was an armed convoy, its style unfamiliar to Isabelle. Aurora volunteered, "It's a Free State knight. Him, his squires, their retinue and supplies, and outrider guards. Given the number, it must be one of the more famous knights, but I can't make out his arms from here."

The convoy bore an impressive collection of flags and personnel: Rising above everything else was a knight-borne standard pole with four pennants. Somewhat shorter were the ten spears bearing three of the same. Each of these eleven displays was borne by a mounted knight, and in addition to the knights there were thirty-three mounted squires, half-a-dozen camp followers sharing a wagon, around fifty mounted guards, and more horses and pack mules than anyone cared to count. If they hadn't been flying a flag of peace, they would have been a very efficient war-party.

Arthur read off the banners, and Maximilian, having more political experience, interpreted them.

"Lord's banners from top to bottom: peace flag . . .

". . . meaning that they've been ordered by their commanding authority to have peace as their top priority, rather than using their own discretion . . ."

". . . Church flag . . ."

". . . meaning that the Church is the official authority for this mission, which may be the Free States making a concerted move while maintaining their official autonomy or may be the Church deciding to get involved directly . . ."

". . . unless I am mistaken, the flag of the Lord-at-Large of the Free States . . ."

". . . so it's definitely the Free States making a move, if they're sending their only at-large noble to do this . . ."

". . . and the Lord's house flag. The Knights are flying everything but the Church's pennant."

"Then they're his personal retinue. Here's the drill: You're roughly the same rank as he is, unless he's been granted plenipotentiary powers. Either way, you need to be negotiating with him directly. His knights serve as an honor guard, and I'll back you with my boys to make it even. Sound good to you?"

"Yeah; let's go see what they want."

Episode 50: A frank exchange of views

The Lord turned out to be quite personable. As he explained, he was on a fact-finding mission: "Black Jong's actions, while initially having a provisional authorization from the authorities most immediate to the scene, have come under investigation by the Free States and the Church. There have been . . . inconsistencies . . . between his stated motivations and his actions."

Arthur was not impressed. "And? If what he's been doing is not to your liking?"

"Officially? I don't know; I report back and they make the decisions. Unofficially? We were told to come here fully armed and ready for remote operations. I can't act without orders from above or I'd lose my authority—I'm more restricted in that than most, given the nature of my title—but I can get orders pretty fast if I need them." He stopped and waited for Arthur to consider this before switching back to the main topic. "What can you tell me about Black Jong's operations?"

"We just captured a fair sized operational group, and it's not a pretty picture. Care to ask them yourselves, or will you take my word for it?"

A slight smirk. "I am not unaware of Arthur Avallonis; I will take your word for it."

Arthur told him what they knew. Then he told him what they didn't know. "Their supply trail just disappears; their main assault force is traveling by magic, I think. Care to enlighten us?"

There was some hurried discussion between the Lord-at-Large and a pair of clerics before the conversation continued. "I can say that a military . . . person of interest . . . is currently suspected to be with Black Jong's main force, and his whereabouts are a matter of some concern. This is publicly known within the state which most recently employed him." He named a name.

Arthur cursed.

"I take it that we've said enough. We'll communicate your information to the Free States and see what they decide; I suspect that they will be issuing a request for the capture and extradition of Black Jong."

The parley adjourned.

Later, Aurora thought over what she had seen and heard and came to a conclusion: This was not the war of liberation that she had been promised. She wouldn't defect to the Empire, but it was definitely time to stop working for Black Jong. She told Arthur as much.

Episode 51: Hell for leather

Arthur got everyone back to camp in a hurry and explained as they packed. "The missing person who's probably helping Black Jong out is not only an expert on large-scale, long-distance magical travel, but he's also advocated using that capability to launch decapitation strikes against various enemies. Whatever the rest of this war looks like, it's not the real fight. The real fight will be for the capitol. Now we have to somehow outrace a force with magical transportation and a head start; our best guess is that they haven't already launched an attack because they've been building siege platforms with the materials that they gathered at the forest, among other places, but that won't delay them for long."

Isabelle raised a point: "And how do you know that they haven't already attacked?"

Arthur stopped for a moment to look at her; a flickering silver flame glowed in his eyes. "Trust me; I'd know."

They finished packing in relative silence. When they were done, someone unhitched the horse that Silent Thunder was sleeping on, and the desperate ride began.

Isabelle was never quite sure how many days they rode north-northwest. They slept little, yet hardly felt tired. Arthur and Orlaith seemed to barely need any rest, and were clearly agitated any time they stopped. Silent Thunder, his services not needed, slept for days on end.

At some point it began to rain.

Episode 52: The City Avallonis

It was dark and it was raining. The similarities ended there. The city before Isabelle, the capitol of the entire Empire, was as large as the heroes' town had been small. The majority of its residents were, presumably, as mundane as the heroes had been incredible. It was also as closed as the town had been welcoming.

The city was built on an island. The island stood in a lake. Between the city and each shore a causeway ran, but at either end of the causeways there was a gap that, during the daylight hours, was covered by a drawbridge. It was not the daylight hours.

Arthur was arguing with the gate guard on the shore side of the causeway terminus. "Look, if you don't let us in right now, the next Imperial forces to cross this drawbridge will probably be liberating the city."

The tired Captain above the shoreside gate sighed and pointed out that it was due to exactly those security concerns that he didn't want to have his counterpart on the causeway lower the drawbridge.

"The enemy will be likely arriving on the causeway!"

"Be that as it may, I must insist that you stand down for the night. I have asked my signalman to relay your arrival and concerns to the Tactical Operations Center; if they order that you be let in, I will do so."

"At this time of night the T.O.C. will be staffed by a Lieutenant with less field experience than my dog, and you know it. At least send word to the Great Hall at the Imperial War Academy!"

"The Great Hall has not been activated; nobody's there." The Captain turned to go.

Arthur grabbed for his horn. "I am a former Captain of the Silver Order, damn it. Let me pass or I will sound the Defense of the Crown." He looked deadly serious.

The Captain turned back in obvious shock, opened his mouth as if to speak, and shut it again when he saw Arthur's face. He disappeared into one of the mini-turrets that supported his gate. A moment later, the sounds of heavy chains could be heard, and the gates opened to reveal a drawbridge lowering towards the heroes from the causeway.

They crossed over the drawbridge and into a nightmare.

End of Season 2.5

Season 3.0: City Living

Episode 53: Breach

The first thing that alerted the heroes to their danger was the blue glow of the opening rift in reality behind them. They were thirty feet past the drawbridge at that point, which put them a couple of hundred feet or so from the other end of the causeway. The second thing that alerted them was someone trying to put an arrow through the rearmost member of the party. This might have worked if the rearmost member of the party had not been Ardon.

Ardon turned and caught the arrow. "Hey! What did you do that for?" He assumed a fighting pose before realizing how many troops were pouring through the gateway. "Oh, crap." He turned back around and started running.

The troops on either side of the rising drawbridge began exchanging volleys with the invaders. This didn't make a significant dent in the enemy forces, but did slow them down. The heroes raced towards the other end of the causeway even as the royal troops behind them retreated to somewhere within their stone guardhouses. Arthur blew an alert on his horn.

Only seconds passed before a fire flared on the city wall. Then another. And another. Fires flared the city 'round. A horn returned Arthur's call.

Aurora dropped a few spells to slow down the pursuers, and Orlaith did the same with her arrows. They made it to the far gatehouse.

"Breach!" Arthur shouted. "Breach! Breach! Breach!"

The guard captain was shouting something to his men. The gates opened a little ways to let the party through as the drawbridge beyond slowly lowered. The gates began to close as soon as the fourteen were through, but then . . .

A ghostly green fist the size of a wagon reached out and ripped the gates from their hinges.

Episode 54: Beware of falling swords

The drawbridge was still lowering.

"Team two, form up! Assume a defensive line at the rear of the arch!" Arthur commanded. Max and his team complied.

The enemy arrived just after the drawbridge made it down.

"Team two, fighting withdrawal! Everyone else, across the drawbridge!" The men-at-arms began to slowly give ground; Max held out for several seconds before doing so as well. Everyone else ran.

A shout came from the battlements ahead and above of them as they ran. A blue streak seared itself into their vision, and a huge sword buried itself in the drawbridge. With a crash, an armored figure followed it. A curiously detached part of Isabelle's mind noticed that the newcomer's armor was a match for Max's. The stranger pulled the glowing sword out of the drawbridge and marched towards the line.

When the first group had finished crossing, they turned to look at team two. Max and the stranger had taken up a position halfway across the drawbridge and were brutally mauling all comers, knocking many of them into the river below. Above, the guards tried to raise the drawbridge, but something prevented them. Arthur turned away and began riding.

Isabelle stayed long enough to perform a quick head-count. Silent Thunder was missing, but this was hardly new. She rode after Arthur as several covered wagons bearing reinforcements arrived.

Episode 55: The Great Hall of the Imperial War Academy

Worried-looking watchmen quickly gathered at intersections before retreating to separate corners. Overhead, a glowing, robed figure floated in the direction of the gate. Bells began ringing out, sounding the alarm, and hastily-dressed men and women lined up to be admitted into the nearest watchhouse. All this Isabelle saw as she followed Arthur to his mysterious destination.

Their destination became clear a few minutes later. Cobblestones gave way to the neatly paved bricks of the Imperial War Academy, and Arthur finally reined in outside of its massive Great Hall. Isabelle and the others tied their horses up next to the several already there as Arthur spoke quietly to the guards. They were quickly ushered inside and the door secured behind them. After passing through the antechamber, the party emerged into the Great Hall proper.

There was a reason that they called the few such rooms in the empire "Great Halls." The entry's double doors opened onto a balcony running around three sides of a room that took up almost the entire length and width of the building. Only at the far end was there no balcony, for at that end there was a giant tapestry, two stories tall and equally wide, that rippled and shifted as if alive. On the floor a story below stretched maps and diagrams of the empire and the city with cast-metal figurines marking the locations of military forces. Tables and cabinets lined the walls underneath the balcony, and the balcony level had doors and even windows opening onto various offices. Sitting, standing, and pacing all over were Academy faculty, top students, and semi-retired military officers. They all looked up as Arthur entered the room.

An official-looking lady seated near the doors asked, "What's the situation?"

"Causeway two has been breached via magical transportation; the island gate is unable to close but hadn't been breached by the time that I left." He rattled off the military units and movements that he'd spotted.

"Damn it, you know we can't activate on our own unless there's a full breach."

Below, people scurried to update the city map. Isabelle and the others spread out to get a better look at what they were doing, but it turned out that the next excitement was back by the entrance.

The doors slammed open and two lightly-armored guards with no obvious identification strode in. They quickly surveyed the assembly and waved the people behind them forward. A moderately handsome, middle-aged man in a golden suit of plate stepped through. His shield was blue with thirteen golden crowns.

The entire assembly snapped to attention and saluted the Emperor.

Episode 56: The Emperor gives the Word

The Emperor strode forward and looked down at the city map. He glanced around the room, pausing when he spotted Arthur.

Arthur nodded.

The Emperor turned to the official-looking lady who had asked Arthur about the situation: "You have the Word." He turned and left.

Facing the suddenly-moving crowd of figures, the lady snatched up a staff that had been leaning against the wall. It looked official. "I now declare the Great Hall active!" She pounded the staff. "This is to be recorded as Command Activation Twelve. Signals, assume command of all city defenses. Information, I want eyes on the bridge and gate, I want a full list of Imperium flows in the city sorted by location, I want the magical breach status of the city monitored closely, I want to know where our units are and who's supporting them, I want to know who and what we're facing, and I want it all FIFTEEN MINUITES AGO!" She paused to catch her breath. "And someone wake up the staff; it's going to be a long night."

Meanwhile, the initial scramble was quickly resolving itself into a smooth operation. At least two of the people on the floor sat with their eyes shut, dictating what they saw of the battle through their magic senses. Others updated the gigantic floor map of the city with the new information. Looking down at the map from the balcony was a troop of mostly older men who conferred among themselves and called out various requests for information. Most impressively, the tapestry at the far end of the hall constantly rewove itself, displaying information on the city's defenses.

The steward shouted out another order when the execution of the first set was underway: "Get me our breach status!"

One of the mages watching the battle obliged. "We're losing the bridge . . . fifteen feet . . . ten . . . five . . . holding at zero—two of the Blue Weapons are holding at zero . . . holding . . . holding . . . hold—" He winced. "Breach! Two lines have breached! Second line is guarding something . . . counterattack coming . . ."

The tapestry shifted to display a list of defensive lines, and the entry under "City Wall" rewrote itself to read "BREACH" in bright red thread.

"Deploy the Civilian Defense Force and signal the Order of White. Message to all government stations: Prepare for a potential occupation of the city."

Episode 57: A.A.O.: Acronyms Are Ordered

The chaos around Isabelle did the impossible and became even more chaotic. There were clearly underlying patterns and structures, but they were hard to determine just by watching. One of the few things that she could work out was that the people in charge were up on the observation level with her; they were the ones giving the orders.

"C.D.F. deploy by plan: Districts One through Seven, Nine, and Ten to Plan R, Eight to reinforce Island Gate One; Eleven and Thirteen to close their borders with Twelve, Twelve to close their inner border."

The Civilian Defense Force, or "C.D.F.," Isabelle understood because she was a former member. The members were ordinary citizens trained in the use of simple weapons by the Watch and dispatched in cases of extreme need. For security reasons, the volunteers had never been told where they might be deployed, so the orders referencing Plan R were beyond her; all she knew was that the Watch District containing the gate under assault was being cordoned off and the gate on the far side was being reinforced.

"Something's tunneling through our inner transport barrier; they must have gotten a device inside."

The tapestry rewove itself again and another "BREACH" warning appeared, this time under "Inner Barrier."

"CAPTRANS confirms and reports all friendly devices locked down."

"Authorize CAPTRANS to take extreme measures. Find out where the breach exited."

"Distress signal from T.O.C."

"Order T.O.C. to destroy all data and surrender."

"T.O.C.'s gone dark and is not acknowledging order."

"Assume they're captured or dead. Data may be compromised. Options?"

Several people responded to the loss of the Tactical Operations Center with comments and suggestions. After a few seconds, one of the older tacticians cleared his throat to quiet the others and said, "I move that we destroy Causeway Two."

Episode 58: Causeway Two is falling down

There was an immediate babble of discussion regarding the motion to destroy the causeway, but the matter quickly came to a vote.








The lady who seemed to be officially in command of the Great Hall nodded once. "Motion carries. Is the bridge clear of friendly forces?"

One of the mages watching the battle with his eyes closed responded, "I swear, there's something on the bridge, but I can't see it. There are some unnatural shadows out there, and every time I re-check the middle of the bridge, more of the enemy is dead or missing."

"We must commend its soul to Heaven, if it has one; there's no way that we can extract someone from all the way out there. Send the command."

"By your order," the other mage acknowledged. There was a pause of perhaps ten seconds before the mage reported, "Done."

Several more seconds passed before there was a dull rumble in the distance. As the rumble died down, the floor beneath Isabelle quivered for a moment.

"Causeway Two is down," the first mage reported. "Breach forces appear to be surrendering."

"Thank Heaven," someone muttered, and there was a scattered chorus of agreement.

Isabelle made her way over to Arthur. "What did they just do?"

"When we last rebuilt the causeways, a spell was carved into each of the support pillars. When activated, it liquefied their mortar. At any given time, only two mages in the military know how to trigger it, but there are always a few retired ones about." He gestured to the mage below as evidence. "C'mon; let's find out how Max and Team Two did."

Episode 59: Triage

Isabelle and the others made their way to the triage station at the gate. Max met them there and made his report quietly: "Three dead, two wounded, and one missing."

Arthur shook his head. "I'm sorry, Max. I checked the Imperium list; there's only you and two others listed."

Max nodded. "At least they only send me people without families."

"Without families except for us."

"'Except for us' indeed. I'll inform the local representatives of the nobles; a couple of their Lords might be in town."

"Let me know when the funerals are; I doubt that we're going anywhere."

"Yes, sir. What's the military situation?"

"The inner barrier was breached, but we don't know where. Capital Transportation is working on it. The city is surrounded on land, and their reinforcements are going to get here before most of ours can. By water we're pretty clear until they get siege engines in place; I don't think that they've brought any large-scale boats in. Let's—"

He broke off as a pair of rescue worker arrived at the station with a stretcher. On the stretcher was Silent Thunder, looking like a drowned cat. He was asleep.

"What happened to him?"

"We found him at the foot of the bluffs by the water. We tried asking him what happened, but all he said was 'They woke me up' and fell asleep. Do you know him?"

"Yeah; he's one of ours. Let him sleep."

"Yes, sir." They carried Thunder away.

Most of the fighters who had been paying attention at the Great Hall gave the retreating stretcher an odd look, but Arthur ignored it. "Right now we should—" he began again.

"Right now you're coming with me." One of the advance guards from the Emperor's retinue was standing behind Arthur. Isabelle had seen—and not seen—too much that day to wonder how he had gotten there without any of them apparently noticing.

Arthur turned around and glared at him. "Keep your attitude to yourself, civilian." Despite this, he gestured for the others to follow.

Episode 60: Orlaith gets a title and Percy gets a job

They wound their way to an open plaza on the upstream end of the city. There, the Emperor and two more of his guards waited. He pointed to Arthur and beckoned him.

After Arthur and the Emperor had spoken for a minute, Arthur pointed to Orlaith and waved her over to them. Orlaith joined them and quickly knelt. The Emperor laid his hands on her head, and a golden aura briefly surrounded her. She stood.

Arthur made his way back to the others, ignoring their questions. He placed his hand on Percy's shoulder. "C'mon, kid; we're getting you a job." They left the increasingly confused section of the squad not summoned to the Emperor's side and took their place in front of him. Arthur presented Percy to the Emperor. The Emperor spoke, and Percy stepped forward and took a knee. The Emperor drew his sword, said something, and dubbed Percy gently on each shoulder. Percy stood again and was formally presented to Orlaith, who nodded. Then the entire group, Emperor included, joined the remaining squad members.

Isabelle did not want to be rude in front of her Emperor, but some questions just needed to be asked. "Sorry to interrupt, but what just happened?" She looked at each of them in turn, unsure whom to ask or who would answer.

Arthur opened his mouth to say something, but the Emperor held up a hand to silence him. Then the Emperor smiled, seemed to relax, and explained, "Control of the Imperium is a key part of every Emperor's claim to Divine Right. Therefore, others directly manipulating the Imperium is a threat; it could even lead to problems of succession." He shrugged. "So we simply adopt them." He grinned at their shocked expressions. "Honorarily. Of course, even honorary stepchildren of the Emperor need protection and are entitled to every royal's right to a Knight Protector. Percy was well-trained and needed a job, so I appointed him. I owe him for his family's service and what happened to them, anyway. . . ." He paused and switched gears. "Now I want all of you to come meet the king of all crime in the Empire."

This time it was Arthur's turn to be surprised. "HIM? You dragged me out here to see someone I've said I'll kill if I ever get the opportunity?"

"No killing! This is a matter of Imperial security, and I expect you to respect that."

"I will, but I don't promise to like it."

"I want you there and not killing him in order to impress upon him the importance of working together on this. At the same time, if he decides to pull something at the meeting . . . like you said, you want to be the one to kill him."

Episode 61: The Meeting

They arrived at the meeting place, a small square surrounded by shops, and found the Emperor's advance guard chatting with the advance guard of the crime lord. The two guards eyed the newcomers, and each made a beckoning gesture to their side of the square. The Emperor's party approached, as did three figures who emerged from the alley on the far side of the square.

On the left of the approaching trio, at least as Isabelle viewed them, was a very tall, broad stony-faced woman dressed in the loose pants, jacket, and tied cloth belt of a practitioner of certain unarmed fighting styles. Having had more experience with such opponents than any of her fellows, Isabelle placed herself opposite the warrior. On the trio's right was a girl as small as the other was large, as bouncy as the other was subdued, and as cheerful as the other was solemn. This girl was asking the central figure why she couldn't kill anyone. Between the two ladies walked a man taller than the first and nearly as thin as the second. His hair was long and golden, much like the tall warrior's or Arthur's, his clothes were fine, though black, and he had a black walking stick that he did not seem to need so much as enjoy. The crime lord's group stopped five or six feet from the Emperor's group, and both the man in black and the Emperor took half a step forwards.

"You called?" drawled the man.

"I ordered." The Emperor's voice was deep and harsh again. "We are under siege and have no ready route for supplies or forays. The enemy can potentially access the portals, so CAPTRANS has shut them down. You will enact those protocols that I have required you to always hold in readiness."

"And in return?"

"I will continue to hold off crushing your organization."

"I suppose the potential theocracy imposed by Black Jong wouldn't be as kind. Consider it done."

"I will. You will receive instructions from me in the morning; until then, do what you will to aid us." The Emperor and his men withdrew from the square, leaving Arthur and company behind.

Episode 62: "Secundus"

Arthur continued watching the crime lord until the Emperor was out of earshot. "And what ladies have you corrupted now?" He glanced at the two bodyguards, who glared angrily back.

"So we're speaking to me now, are we? Believe it or not, I'm not as evil as you think."

"I don't want to argue about this."

"Then why did you bring it up? Introduce me." This time, it was the criminal who looked around at his opposite number's companions.

Arthur grimaced. "The man known as 'Secundus,' seducer, traitor, criminal, . . . and my former Lieutenant in the Silver Order."

It was Aurora who stepped forward. "I think I see where this is going." Flames flickered around her hands.

The larger bodyguard shifted into a grim-faced defensive stance, moving between Aurora and "Secundus"; the smaller pulled a knife and grinned.

"Aurora," said Arthur, disapprovingly, "we need him alive, for now."

Aurora hesitated before stepping back.

Everyone relaxed.

"Perhaps you should leave now," Arthur advised Secundus.

"Perhaps I should." Secundus waved his advance guard over to his side. "Plan Angel is now in effect. The surface-to-river routes must be clear of all evidence by dawn, magical transport is forbidden, guards are to stand by at surface posts and take immediate action against any enemy agents, and I will see the assassins and Intelligence in the address chamber in half an hour. Go!"

The man ran back into the shadows at the far side of the square, and the crime lord and his entourage followed behind at a brisk pace.

Arthur cursed under his breath and led his team in the opposite direction.