Chapter 9

Glissandi brought her hand up and a small barrier flashed into existence, narrowly fending off the blade that had come her way. Holding the blade and muttering a curse, Mina jumped back as the barrier suddenly flew her way. She tried fending it off with her blade, but to no avail. It pushed her back and she switched tactics, letting it push her over and rolling backwards, quickly getting back to her feet. The barrier dissipated as Glissandi shifted her attention. The attack itself had worked, however. Despite having narrowly countered one of the twins, Mira had made use of the opening and was now lightly pressing her blade against the Priestess's neck. Glissandi panted, sweat running down her skin.

"Stop!" barked Lissa. "You're improving, Priestess."

Glissandi sighed. "It doesn't feel like it."

"Don't let your defeats get you down. These two have you completely outclassed in speed and combat experience. They have been training and fighting ever since they were old enough to wield weapons. You on the other hand have the physical prowess of a half-drowned kitten. So, in that respect it is quite an achievement that you managed to fend them off for that long. Two against one is not a good combination either. You have to hold off both parties simultaneously and these two are notorious for taking down even high ranking Knights due to how well they fight as a pair."

Mira and Mina brightened at the praise.

"Right, off you two go. Take turns sparring with Trista, the one not sparring stands guard."

"Yes sir!" the two responded simultaneously, before running off.

Glissandi caught the towel that Lissa threw at her with a grateful nod. Towelling off the sweat, she allowed her magic to surge through her body. She didn't use any spells to alleviate her sores this time. Lissa had told her to forego that, in order for her body to adapt to the feeling. It was far from pleasant, but she understood its usefulness. It was terribly draining though. Her stamina was nothing compared to that of her Warrior companions, and the pace they'd set since leaving the city was one best described as hellish.

'At least I'm improving by leaps and bounds,' she thought with a wry smile. It was a thought that gave her a sliver of consolation, even if she still considered her current level to be inadequate.

Lissa seemed to sense the Priestess' displeasure.

"You are demanding too much of yourself, Priestess. Stamina is not something you can magically acquire. It's a slow process that requires constant training and maintenance. All of us have been training since our youth. You should not see us as feasible targets. You are already at a level that exceeds that of any Priestess who I have travelled with before. At the very least, you're the only one who lets us set the pace we want, rather than dragging us down. And you don't complain."

Glissandi threw her a questioning look.

"Well, at least not out loud," the Paladin amended.

Glissandi sighed, but did so with a smile. The Paladin knew what buttons to push by now to alleviate her spirits. Her companions were a real blessing and the events in the city had tightened their bonds. The Lord had truly blessed her. Even leaving the city had gone a lot smoother than she had expected. The day after their battle and Salixor's departure she had proposed her plans to the party, whom had all accepted it. The Squires with eagerness, obviously hungry for adventure. The Paladin with a soft, knowing smile, as if she had predicted this outcome. Given how the Captain had been waiting outside with a large escort, ready to bring both the report and the two children back to the Monastery, it was likely she had. Even Trista had seemed eager, which was a rarity. The Knight's usual stony facade had slightly cracked when she told them that she intended to chase after this Gaelus, if her party consented. It had pleased her to see them approve of her plans. Despite her original failure, the group supported her and trusted her.

She wondered how Mother Dilia would react to the report and the newcomers. She'd be undoubtedly glad to see the little girl. Humans that possessed such a bright, magical radiance were treasured by the Order. The other parts of the report, well... If Mother Dilia knew of Gaelus, then she'd no doubt sent a party after her to track them down, despite the risks. The Mother had friends amongst the Warriors, and a singular Knight or Paladin could travel significantly faster than her party. Despite her best attempts, she knew she was still slowing them down. If she did not know anything, then it meant she was chasing a truly unknown target, which was even more worrying in some ways. A being of such strength, with such influence and so many followers should not have been able to go unnoticed.

Wait a minute, she thought.

"Lissa, what was it you said earlier?" she asked, grabbing the Paladin's arm excitedly.

"That you're improving well?" Lissa asked, uncertain what the Priestess was on about.

"No, no. Not that! Stamina can't be magically acquired. Why not? Why shouldn't it be possible to boost your own senses magically? I can alleviate tiredness, heal wounds, why couldn't I boost my own physical performance with magic?" Glissandi was downright giddy at the prospect and failed to see just how much Lissa's face darkened. The Paladin reached out and grabbed Glissandi roughly, forcefully holding her in place.

"Stop!" she commanded. The Priestess froze.

"Don't even think about that!" she shouted, then relented visibly when she remembered she wasn't talking to a recruit. Glissandi eyed her curiously, knowing that the sudden outburst was uncharacteristic and there must be a good reason for it. She waited patiently for the Paladin to gather herself, rather than rushing her with questions.

"People have tried. It is a good way to rip your own body apart. How familiar are you with biology, Priestess?"

"Decently so. It was one of the subjects we had to study. We can cure an illness with magic, but we need to be able to make do without."

"Then if I compare a muscle to a rope, would that make sense to you?"

"A rope?" she asked, her eyes wide.

"Yes. And if you use a muscle, it goes taut. Like a rope."

Glissandi paled. Her mind skipped the next steps and cut through it all towards the final explanation.

"Oh Lord... That's..."

Lissa blinked in surprise, obviously not having expected the Priestess to have figured it out so quickly.

"If you add magic, your strength is indeed significantly enhanced. You can forego tiredness. But the counterpart of that is that your muscles cannot withstand the sudden increase in strength. You would literally tear them with the sudden increase. Or you'd run out of energy because your blood can't flow quickly enough. Your heart might burst from it trying to keep up. Your brain would become disorientated from the conflicting signals every limb would send. Unless you can somehow enhance everything at once and keep it in perfect balance, you're more at risk of making an error due to overextending. It is much safer, not to mention simpler, to fight with your body the way you trained it."

"You're right... Lord in heaven, the amount of control you'd need to exert such vast array of enhancements at is mind boggling." She shook her head, colour slowly returning to her cheeks. "I take it this information was earned at a high cost?"

"The Warriors experimented with it, along with a number of Priests that were adept in healing magic. It was thoroughly researched, despite the costs. Eventually the entire research was cancelled. Some of it was useful. For example, I know that Trista managed to block a blow from a Troll with her shield by encasing her entire arm in magic, allowing it to hold still. She knew to extend the enhancement across her chest as well, otherwise her arm would have been blown off. It also required holding the shield in the right position so the force would be transferred equally. There is a lot that comes to play. We're intimately familiar with the physical aspects and can use such minor tricks. Mess those up and bad things will happen. Trista managed to block one blow and save a life, but the impact launched her into a tree and broke her back. She then used more enhancements to keep her back in place, allowing her to at least move."

Lissa shook her head, realising she was speaking out of turn about another Warrior's past.

"Do not venture into that terrain, Priestess. This isn't a request. This is a warning. I might be able to handle minor enhancements at best and that is only because I have a lifetime of experience behind me, and very little magic. If you try them, we'd have to gather the pieces of you across a disturbingly large area."

Glissandi nodded, her long hair waving in the wind.

"Your warning is received. I will not use them," the Priestess promised. Satisfied with the answer, the Paladin let go and walked off, going to oversee the camp. The sun was setting already and they would be up by sunrise. The Priestess sighed in relief when she remembered that since today had held a long training session, she was free of standing guard. She had originally tried to say that she didn't mind doing her part as well, but both Trista and Lissa had violently shot that down. Trista had a look of fear on her face at the suggestion. Clearly the Knight thought her capable of much, but standing guard while tired was not part of that. Given how the Knight spent virtually all of her time awake by looking around for hidden hostiles to the point it was seen as paranoia, the Priestess didn't hold it against her.

She stretched and enjoyed the feeling it caused in her sore muscles. It had been two weeks since they had left the city and she was pleased with the changes so far. A strict diet and constant exercise had started to have an effect on her and she wasn't as frail as she used to be. Nothing compared to the Warriors, but she was still glad for the changes. She found that the look suited her, even if that was vanity talking. She walked to the river, intending to refresh herself before going to sleep. Not far off she could see Mina squaring off against Trista with surprising speed.

Trista took a quick step back, allowing the Squire's blade to narrowly fly past her face. She didn't fear a sudden thrust, the girl wasn't in the right position for that. Her own blade came up again and the Squire hurriedly jumped back, before launching herself at the Knight again. Trista smiled and switched hands. The Squire's eyes went wide as she suddenly found herself wide open to the Knight's right arm and the subsequent punch forced her off balance. Rather than staying put, she fell over and rolled back, using the same trick she had used against the Priestess earlier. She could hear a soft thud when Trista's blade hit the spot she occupied only a moment before. Getting to her feet she found that the Knight was already charging her again, clearly intending on giving her no time to think. That was alright. She wasn't the thinking type anyway. She ran into the attack, narrowly fended off the thrust and crashed into the Knight. She managed to take Trista off guard with her violent outburst as blades were dropped in favour of hand to hand combat. She thought she'd have an advantage given how her knife had been in the sleeve of her mail shirt, but the Knight simply grasped her hand the moment she folded it to pull it out. The Squire cursed inwardly, she'd been read. She let out a frustrated scream as the Knight started putting pressure on her hand, immobilising it. She gritted her teeth, ignored the pain and aimed for a short punch with her free hand, but the Knight's speed outclassed hers and she found her fist harmless bouncing off the Knight's shoulder. Then her instincts screamed at her and she slid her right leg half a step forward, pulled her hands down, forcing Trista to either follow suit or let go. The Knight chose the former and Mina showed a feral grin as she stomped forward, pushing the Knight off balance.

Then she suddenly found herself on the ground, Trista nowhere to be seen.

"What?" she asked out loud, shaking the dizziness from her head. She rolled around and found the Knight standing next to her, blade in her hand again and pointed at her.

"What? But how?" the Squire exclaimed.

"I took a step back. Moved my right leg. Let you barrel past me while pulling you down. Kicked your feet away from underneath you. It was a good attempt. An equal opponent would have been downed. Not an ideal position to fight from though. What was your next plan?"

Mina was silent for a second. She didn't really had a plan beyond that. That wasn't how she fought. She relied on her instinct to guide her through a fight. Planning was her sister's strong point.

"I don't know. Just fight and use any openings, I guess," she muttered dejectedly.

Trista offered the girl a hand and pulled her up, before clasping her shoulder firmly.

"You fought well," she complimented. Mina's disappointment evaporated instantly and she thanked the Knight for the lesson, before running off to switch with Mira.

Trista smiled from underneath her helmet as the calmer girl took the place of her sister. Of the two she found Mina to be significantly more dangerous in close combat. She relied on instinct and had trained herself to follow that up in a heartbeat. In a prolonged battle however, Mira became more dangerous as she analysed her opponent. A great tactic against humans or beings that relied on brute strength such as Orcs. Utterly useless against Trolls however, if you were the front line fighter. Mira greeted her, then surprised her by launching a wild attack. Trista flinched for a second, having been lost in thought and the result was Mira staggering back when the Knight dodged underneath the slash and gave a brutal kick to the girl's abdomen. She took a hurried step to the girl, who was down on her knees and was throwing up her lunch.

"Are you al—" she began, only to be cut off when the girl grabbed her by the shoulder and a knife flashed towards the opening between her helmet and her neck.

'Ah. That's the Mira I know,' she thought with a smile, ramming her head down, making the small blade crash into her chest plates and slide off harmlessly. The girl herself, however, was left seeing stars when the Knight's full face helmet made hard contact with the girl's much smaller one.

"Sneaky. A good attempt. Get up and fight properly."

"Yes sir," the Squire responded, still dizzy from the headbutt. She slowly scrambled back to her feet, wiped off the lasts bit of vomit from her lips and took on a combat stance. Unlike her sister, Mira would only exchange glancing blows, the Knight knew, preferring to keep her distance while reading the opponent's pattern. Trista had a small smile underneath her helmet. A commendable tactic, but against experienced opponents this would backfire. The girl lacked the combat experience to understand the danger her plan posed. If someone put up a fake pattern, they could lure you in.

'Well,' she thought to herself with a grin. 'The best way to learn that is to feel it.'

She made good on her promise.

"Alarm!"

The cry echoed through the night and tore apart the blissful dream that Glissandi had been residing in. The urgency of the shout made her jump up, only to see that the rest of her party was already forming a circle around her, arms at the ready. In the darkness of the moonlit night she could vaguely see a blur running towards them, but given how nobody reacted aggressively it must have been one of the Squires. As the girl came closer and joined the circle, the Priestess wondered what the cause for alarm had be. She struggled to crawl out of her sleeping bag and held back a curse when she slipped and fell over. Not a good job for someone who's main job was to be graceful.

"Movement, sir. Slow, but big. Heading our way," Mina reported. "I couldn't see what it was, but the ground shook."

"Troll?"

"Possibly. Don't think so though, it felt different."

"Keep one eye closed everyone. Priestess, light!"

Glissandi finally got to her feet and was glad to be receiving simple commands. She was still being integrated into the team as a fighting unit, and the Warriors in turn were still getting used to having a mage amongst their ranks. The Priestess closed her eyes, another thing she had been taught as the light from her eyes when she used magic made her an easy target in the dark. She let out a soft shout as warning before light flashed out from her hands and raised to the sky illuminating the entire area. It temporarily blinded the Warriors, but their eyes soon adjusted and if worst came to pass they could easily fall back on the dark again, having kept one eye in reserve. Simple, but effective tactics.

The Warriors tensed and it took a long moment before Glissandi understood why. She felt the ground shake slightly, then more as whatever it was came closer. She felt a slight mental pressure slide past her and knew that the Knight and Paladin were casting out their aura. She mentally chastised herself and cast out a spell of her own, allowing her to see far further than her Warrior companions and with far greater clarity. The magical orbs sped in the direction of the threat, when Lissa took note and ordered her to spread them in an all round, just in case.

The orbs flew around and formed a large defensive circle, giving Glissandi the difficult task of monitoring every direction at once. One of her orbs saw a group of trees shake violently as something moved underneath the canopy and she moved them closer. What was underneath, hidden in the shade, was an absolutely massive creature, easily twice the height of a man. Recognition struck her like a hammer.

"Salixor?"

"What?"

The tall Keeper stepped out from the trees and was now slightly visible in the light, far away from the camp site as he still was, but the creature did not look good. His bark was torn and charred and the green liquid that was his life blood was leaking from countless wounds. One of his arms was reduced to a burned stump at the shoulder and he had lost an eye, a plethora of wounds covering his face.

"Oh Lord in heaven, preserve us..." she whispered.

"Report!" barked Lissa, foregoing politeness for the sake of urgency.

"It's Salixor, but he's badly wounded. Really badly. Maimed."

That shut Lissa up. She had been the only one who had gone, however briefly, toe to toe with the gigantic being and knew damn well how tough he was. Aside the simple fact that whoever had managed to wound him to such an extent would be a truly dangerous foe, if it was still alive at least, there was also the very worrying issue of him moving straight towards him.

"Ready your magic, Priestess. We may have need of it."

"He doesn't look like he's in any state to fight..." the Priestess whispered, feeling pity for the sad state the creature was in. He had, after all, saved the life of one of her party and given her invaluable information.

"Not for him. For whoever might be following him."

The Priestess went quiet for a moment as her mind processed that remark. Then the air started to violently crackle as she drew upon her full reserves and made herself battle ready.

'Good girl,' the Paladin thought. She had indeed learned from her mistake. She wasn't going to panic this time and the entire group of Warriors could feel the shield that had formed around them. They were out in the open in a hard to defend location, but they had formed a ring of steel with veritable magical artillery in the centre.

It took several agonisingly long minutes before Salixor came into view, where the Squires kept hopping from foot to foot in impatience as Glissandi's orbs continuously kept watch in the skies. The tall Keeper, now no longer having to bend over due to being indoors and having risen to his full, impressive height, slowly walked towards them. For a moment Lissa thought that he was just taking it slow, then she spotted just how many wounds he sported and let out a quiet, vile curse. Glissandi's explanation hadn't done it justice.

"Your guard is commendable," the creature's deep voice rumbled. "But the threat pursuing you does not come from the ground. He flies."

The entire group immediately looked up, expecting an imminent attack when a laugh that shook the trees rolled through the fields. It was a pleasant sound, even if it could not hide the pain the creature was in.

"He is not here yet. I managed to misdirect him. I am glad though, to have found you and even more glad to see that you have followed my advice. I merely hope that we all can reach safety before he returns. Or before another shows up." The Keeper smiled at them, causing the Squires to tense and take a small step back when they saw just how horribly mutilated his face was.

"Any other enemies Priestess?"

"Not as far as I can see."

"Harumph. My senses far outstrip yours, humans. No one else is near."

The Paladin looked questioningly at the Priestess, who pondered her options for a moment, then chose to believe him, given that whoever was chasing him would kill him if they met again. The magical crackling disappeared and the Paladin made a few gestures towards the others. Just like that, the entire alarm phase came to an end and the group ran towards Salixor. Trista was the first to reach him and offered him her shoulder. The Keeper gratefully accepted it and leaned slightly on it and the poor Knight nearly buckled under the weight, causing Salixor to alter his stance again and apologise profusely. Trista underwent the trial wordlessly and simply continued supporting him as much as she could.

Not long after that the large Keeper was sitting down, leaning against a sturdy boulder while Glissandi, under his instructions, infused him with energy, allowing his wounds to start closing. It was a disturbing feeling to her, the creature felt as if he was a bottomless barrel. How he had remained alive, let alone conscious with those wounds was beyond her. Even Lissa was eyeing him approvingly.

"I believe I owe you humans another explanation," he began.

"As much as I wish for you to rest first, I believe that may be for the best. I take it some urgency is required?" the Priestess asked, gaining another deep laugh from him.

"You have a talent for understatement, human. Very well." He shifted slightly and moved his legs a little further away from the fire. When the Squires had lit it again, there had been a slight flash of panic in his eyes that had gone nearly unnoticed, but both the Knight and the Paladin had seen it.

"After we parted ways, I went north, in an attempt to lure all those who were chasing after Cassandra towards me, away from you. Four days after that I was overtaken. I was lucky. He caught me while I was crossing through a forest. The man, if you can call a Rogon a man, was polite at first, as he should be. We are friends, after all, even if our factions do not align."

"I hate to interrupt, Salixor, but I do not believe any here know what a Rogon is," the Priestess interjected.

"I do," Lissa said. "They're humanoid creatures with surprisingly small, but powerful wings. They have bird-like legs and four arms. Their biggest threat is their speed and their razor sharp limbs. Their claws are lethal. Their strangest habit is that their limbs do not have bones, but contain a sort of fluid that they can harden on a whim, meaning they can attack from the strangest of angles. They are not pleasant opponents."

"Indeed, that is what a Rogon is. And this one has trained with Gaelus. You can add strength and an impressive magical array to his abilities. Combine that with his impossible speed..."

"He could hurt you?" the Paladin asked.

Salixor's large eye narrowed as he looked at the Paladin, remembering their previous encounter.

"Yes, human," he simply said. "He could. As you can see."

The Paladin gritted her teeth.

"He asked me what happened to Cassandra and to hand over the items, or at least steer him in the right direction. I told him she was dead, a well deserved fate, and that I was still hunting down the items. He... did not believe me where it concerned the latter. He had evidence of his own that a party of the Order had killed her and assumed I would know more. I helped cover your tracks and made mine more visible. He is a powerful man, but his tracking skills are rather lacking.

Upon arriving at the conclusion that I was not willing to give him any further information on the item, despite our previous friendship, he attacked me. I will tell you know that most creatures would not be foolish enough to attack a Keeper while he is in a forest. The forest strengthens my kin. We despise battle, but we are formidable foes none the less. I fought to the best of my ability and hurt him. Harumph. As you can see, it availed me little. I could not keep up with his speed, nor with his combat abilities. I was torn asunder. He reduced me to splinters and firewood. He spared me only because he realised I really did not know about the item, as well as due to our old friendship. He hoped I would not hold it against him. He left, going further north after that."

Salixor sighed deeply.

"I fear he will soon abandon his search and start to return. It is why I am moving south as quickly as possible. I doubt he will be lenient enough to let me live a second time, given his mission. It might be even worse when he realises that the item is quite probably destroyed and that you are the cause of it. He will come for you."

The group looked at one another as they processed just how much trouble they were in. If a being of Salixor's ability could not fight off a single enemy, what chance did they have? Lissa grinned, to everyone's surprise.

"You are not a mage. And he is a single enemy. We are not frail weaklings who shy from danger. We are servants of the Lord. If this foe of yours comes, he will find naught here for him but blades and fire." Salixor winced at the last word.

"Priestess," the Paladin said, turning towards her. "We await your orders."

"Then we move immediately. You may be willing to make a stand here, but I suggest we move south post-haste. We might be able to hold him off, or even defeat him on his own, but if others join him then we stand no chance. Salixor, given how you caught up with us I assume you are fit enough to travel?"

"I am, human."

"Then we shall set off."

"Priestess, I understand your haste but if we travel in the dark, we risk wounding both ourselves and the horses," the Paladin protested.

"I can light the way."

On the inside, the Priestess was furious. She was only just getting used to dealing with the fatigue of training and their hellish speed and now they'd have to go even faster. Part of her wanted to throw the type of tantrum a girl her age was definitely entitled to, but the rest of her told her to keep it together. She was a Priestess, a loyal servant of the Lord. She had her duty and she would not shirk away from it, her own body be damned. All she had achieved was because of Him and His benevolence and Darkness would have to swallow her whole before she'd relent in her task.

Gritting her teeth she mounted her horse, a lot more graceful than she had done the first time. The Squires quickly broke up the camp and stashed away their supplies. Within mere minutes the entire party was ready and gathered around the Priestess, who sent bright orbs of light out to illuminate a clear path. Salixor took position at the rear of the formation and the group set off, Salixor, despite his wounds and loud grunting, keeping pace with them all.

Far, far behind them, weeks of travel time on foot, a short creature darted through the sky.

"Goodness me, goodness me. So much land, so few eyes. Still, they must be somewhere," he complained. He said it with a smile. He simply enjoyed being free. Nobody telling him what to do, nobody instructing him, lecturing him, leaving him free to do what he liked doing. Flying was the very top of that list. Soaring through the sky, diving towards the ground and darting through trees and obstacles at blinding speed was simply exhilarating. The wind rippling through his feathers, gravitational forces pulling on him as he performed insane feats of agility just because he could. His mind briefly went to his friend, Salixor. It was such a shame the big lump hadn't cooperated. He didn't like fighting. He was good at it, mind you, but he didn't like it. He just wanted to fly and soar free, really. Alas, he had been ordered to bring back the item and an order was an order, like it or not. So, he'd find the group. Ask them to hand over the item. If they didn't have it, well... It would be a shame, but he'd have to kill them. Such an unpleasant task really.

Why couldn't people just let him fly in peace?

"Stop!" barked Lissa. Most of the riders obeyed the order immediately. In the case of the last member on horseback it was the horse who obeyed, rather than its rider. A sleeping Priestess jumped awake and fell off her horse, her foot getting caught in the stirrups. Salixor was beside her before she managed to hit the ground and he caught the panicking woman in time. She stared at him wide-eyed as he freed her foot and put her back on the saddle.

"We're stopping here! Make camp!" the Paladin ordered. The Squires slid off their horses and started unpacking the supplies while the Knight moved out to set out wards and scout the immediate surroundings.

"I..." the drowsy Priestess began. "Why are we stopping? It's still light out?"

The Paladin patted her horse before stomping over to the Priestess.

"Firstly, because there are a lot of armed men ahead of us. Secondly, because you are getting far too tired. You may have been fooling me for a while now, with you using magic to hide your exhaustion, but Darkness be damned, Priestess, that is how you get yourself killed."

The Priestess opened her mouth to protest but the Paladin shut her up with a sharp glare and a raised finger.

"I am not yet done. This is another piece of the so called Warrior's common sense, so keep quiet and listen. I have fought against Rogons before. They are formidable foes, but definitely not beyond what me and mine can handle. However, we are not dealing with a normal one. Just like how the average human does not measure up against you or me, just like how that witch differs from the average woman, so will this one differ from a normal Rogon. Your magic will be key in our defence. He will make you his prime target and with reason. That means you must be attentive, not exhausted. We will be a ring of steel with you at the centre, but he can attack from above, where we cannot defend from. You are already far less used to the flow of battle than we are. Your magic is an asset, but if you grow exhausted you will become a hindrance rather than a help. So. We stop. We rest. And we pray to the Lord that the creature is not yet near."

Glissandi sighed deeply and cast her eyes down. She didn't even want to counter the argument anymore. She was too tired. She had tried to hide it, to let speed be their watchword. Now she realised that doing so was a grave tactical error. She tried to chastise herself for it, then decided that she could do that tomorrow as well. She had spent everything just trying to stay in the saddle and had been clinging to the reins with desperation for the past few hours. Then the first part of what the Paladin had said got through to her and her head snapped back up. Lissa grabbed it roughly and pushed her back with blazing eyes.

"Go. To. Sleep."

Glissandi opened her mouth in shock, then closed it and timidly moved to the sleeping bag that the Squires had laid out for her. Sleep took her in seconds.

"I could alleviate her exhaustion to an extent," Salixor offered, his deep voice rumbling through the small clearing. Lissa finger shot up like a sword.

"Don't you dare, you overgrown log, or I'll use you for firewood. She needs to learn that actions have Darkness be damned consequences. Lord above, what a mess. Trista! Stop scouting and get back in the saddle! Find out what those guys up there want!" she shouted, stomping over to the horses, leaving an annoyed Keeper behind. His angry harumph vibrated through the ground.

The soldiers that were a few hundred metres ahead didn't worry her. They had been flying the flag of the Trivistan Empire after all, meaning they were friendly. Allies even. Still, for such a vast number of troops to be up and about meant a military action was taking place and while steering the party straight into a war was something to be avoided at all costs, there would be a lot of added safety if they could link up with them for a while.

She took care of the horses as Trista rode off into the distance, quickly drawing the attention of the Imperial troops, who immediately responded by sending out a patrol to intercept her. Lissa could only vaguely see them talking, but before long the Knight accompanied them back to the main force. From there on out it took an agonisingly long time before the Knight reappeared, followed by a surprisingly short man wearing a long chain mail vest, and his four-men escort. As the Knight came closer to the camp she held halt and saluted.

"Paladin Lissa, may I present to you Colonel Luthir from the Trivistan Empire, commander of the seventeenth Battalion of Heavy Infantry. Colonel Luthir, may I present to you Paladin Lissa, head Paladin of the Fortress-Monastery of Saint Guderia. May the Lord shelter you both."

With that said she motioned the four escorts and assigned them positions around the camp. The four men looked at one another briefly, then their leader, before nodding and falling in line.

"May the Lord bless you for coming over so swiftly, Colonel," Lissa said, giving the tiny man a handshake.

"It is my pleasure, honourable Paladin. I have fought with others of your Order in my younger years. I hold you and the Order in high esteem. The Lord has capable servants and I am always glad to lend them a hand. Alas, I am in a hurry, so let us dispense with the pleasantries and come to the core of the matter. Is there anything I can aid you with?"

"Possibly so, Colonel, but I lack information at the moment. Where is your battalion heading?"

"That could potentially be classified as a military secret, were it not that our foes will not be able to react in time. We are headed to the southern border, towards the Maltora Kingdom. It would appear they have moved the entirety of their armed forces to the south, launching an attack towards a city."

"A singular city?" asked Lissa, eyeing the Colonel dubiously.

"Yes, I was as surprised as you are when I heard the news. Apparently this city is incredibly well defended." The way he voiced it made it clear he doubted the veracity of that statement.

"No doubt they want to take it down with haste, lest their many enemies swarm them." The Colonel's coughed drily as he waved towards his men.

"As you can see, their plan clearly failed. Anyway, that is the task I was assigned. I am to meet up with several other battalions at the border. The Empire is planning on launching a large scale offensive into Maltora." He nodded towards the Paladin, indicating that was the end of his explanation.

"Would you be terribly opposed if we stayed near your column then?" Lissa asked, plans forming in her head. She knew the contents of a heavy infantry battalion well. There were still a decent number of mages in there as well, which would greatly enhance their defensive power. Their foe might be a powerful adversary for the five of them, the still recovering Salixor excluded, but throw another five to six hundred men into the equation and things became very different. She threw a quick look at Salixor and was surprised to see unbridled fury on his face. She looked at him for far too long and the Colonel followed her eyes. The tiny man jumped back and drew his sword with surprising speed.

"Darkness!" he shouted. His escorts, hearing his scream, returned immediately and formed up around him, somehow missing the giant Keeper entirely, even though he was standing by the side of the road.

"Harumph. Drop that blade, tiny manling and answer me!" the Keeper roared. The sound reverberated through the surroundings and a flock of birds took off from a nearby tree. With a shriek the Colonel dropped his blade, taking several steps back. His escorts, who hadn't been able to miss the giant tree-man roaring at them, were struggling to keep their horses under control and were generally failing at that.

"That city they are nearing, does it carry the name of Lanas?" Salixor shouted, stunning the Paladin through the sheer volume of his voice. She had never heard genuine anger in his voice before.

"I don't know!" the man yelled, falling over in his haste to get further away from the giant.

"Salixor!" shouted Lissa, getting over the initial shock.

"Darkness be damned, what's gotten into you?"

"You do not understand!" came the quick response. The Keeper threw his long arms in the air in desperation as worry manifested itself on his face.

"If the humans attack Lanas, countless will die! Lanas must not be besieged! Ever!"

"Well the city'll be gone soon. No walls can hold off their army. They're a well trained force, even if they're not our equals," the Colonel muttered.

"You fool!" the Keeper bellowed. "That is besides the point! Lanas is his city! If it burns, so will Maltora! You do not cross him! His vengeance will darken the world and cover it with blood! It mustn't happen! Such a calamity must not come to be!"

The Keeper turned to Lissa, worry having been replaced with panic.

"I can't let so many beings be hurt. I must go and try to keep it from happening. Maybe I can convince the humans. Make them call off. I must hurry. I wish you luck in your quest, but I must depart now. I cannot let this happen!" he shouted, before stomping off. A dumbfounded Lissa watched him sprint off, the ground shaking violently under his steps. Within moments the gigantic Keeper was reduced to a tiny spot on the horizon, before even that faded.

"I... Paladin, by the Lord, what was that creature?" the Colonel asked, eyeing the distant horizon suspiciously.

"An ally of sorts... One who answered some questions and raised many, many more," the Paladin muttered dejectedly, annoyed at his sudden departure and not having the answer to any of those questions.

"Try to forget it, Colonel. To return to our original topic, we are being chased by a dangerous foe. A Rogon, if you are familiar with them?" The Colonel nodded, much to her surprise. The tiny man was well learned if he knew of the avian creatures.

"One of them is chasing us. He is highly trained however and as such poses a threat to our small party. Our Priestess is already exhausted from dealing with a powerful witch earlier and we have set an exhausting pace ever since."

"Consider it done, Paladin. You are welcome amidst our column as well. You would be safer there and you could rest within the wagons as well. We would be honoured to have you with us. Your presence would be quite the morale boost to my men. How far is it that you need to go?"

Lissa made a small bow. "I thank you kindly for your offer, Colonel, and I shall gladly take it." With Salixor gone, she had no reason to stay apart from the soldiers anymore. Linking up with them would be a blessing she thanked Him for.

"We were heading in the same direction as your forces. It appears that, just like the Maltorans, we too have unfinished business in this city they are after."

The Colonel picked up his sword, sheathed it and saluted her.

"Then you'd best hurry, Paladin. Or there won't be anything left of it, strange predictions of mythical creatures aside."

Less than an hour later the party was comfortably riding inside a wagon that had been cleared for them. Lissa and Trista were beside it, standing guard despite being at the very centre of an armed column and the ring of mages that had subtly been stationed around them. Mira and Mina were taking turns steering it, while the Priestess, who had somehow slept through the entire event, was still sleeping soundly inside it.

Lissa could hardly wait until the Priestess woke up. Salixor and Gaelus were completely unknown factors and Salixor suddenly stomping off had left her at a complete loss. Whatever it was, it had turned a powerful being into a panicking toddler. Something even a near death experience hadn't done to him. What really worried her, however, was the way the Keeper had phrased it.

Countless would die... she thought to herself.

Well that can't be good.

It took a long, long sixteen hours before Glissandi finally woke up. During that time, Trista had to resort to distracting Lissa with quick and silent conversations, using nothing but minute hand gestures. The Priestess had fooled Lissa by using magic to alleviate her fatigue and that had thoroughly angeredthe Paladin. She hadn't taken the discovery that the girl had been running on fumes well. The Paladin knew that the Priestess needed her sleep, but Lord above that didn't stop the temptation to just shake and shout her awake. On top of all that, the existence of Gaelus still unnerved her and she, although she would never admit it, did look towards the Priestess for guidance. She was a Warrior, she dealt with threats up front Darkness be damned, not all this finicky thinking. Now, however, she was finally up and after having asked and received an explanation for their new situation, the Paladin and the Priestess were discussing the situation and Trista could finally focus on being her paranoid little self , it was a tremendous improvement over having to hold a nervous Lissa back.

"Salixor left?" asked Glissandi, stifling a yawn.

"Stomped off there and then."

"You didn't try to stop him?"

The look Lissa shot at the Priestess made it clear the elder woman doubted her sanity.

"Yes Priestess. I was planning to stop a creature twice my size and several times my weight by standing in front of him while he's stomping off."

"Cut the sass Paladin, I just woke up," the Priestess grumpily replied."

"Oh reaaaaally? And how come you were that tired, hm?

Glissandi realised she was stepping on thin ice and decided that the only way to avoid earning a lecture that would scorch her ears off was redirecting the conversation.

"I must admit I am confused. Can you repeat the exact phrasing he used?"

Lissa quickly told her everything and was half pleased and half worried when the Priestess frowned.

"That isn't good."

The Paladin rolled her eyes, which earned her a glare from the Priestess. Mina, who was sitting next to her sister at the front of the wagon, shook her head. The two were going to be at it all day if she had to take a guess.

"I'll elaborate. Salixor, a being of great power, who was mauled and maimed and didn't seem terribly bothered by it, panicked when he heard of the city being besieged. His fear was not aimed at the loss of people inside the city, but what would happen as a consequence of it."

"I followed up to that point, yes," the Paladin interjected. Glissandi shushed her.

"A full city. The entire army of a kingdom. He did not fear their loss. He did not mourn their deaths."

"I... Don't follow," Lissa reluctantly admitted.

"Don't you see? That means he fears what will happen after! He fears what that mysterious master of his will do if that city falls."

"I... Yes. And?"

"If you were to fight against this column, right here and now. How many men could you take down?"

Lissa was quiet for a moment as she looked around.

"With the element of surprise, given time—"

"No, you draw your sword and fight them right here, right now."

"I could probably kill a dozen before they'd overwhelm me."

"Right. And with the rest of the party?"

"Without mages interfering on either side, at least fifty. Possibly even a hundred. We'd tire out eventually and then we'd die."

"And how many men do you think Maltora has at its disposal?"

"A lot?"

"Four hundred thousand by the last counting."

"That is... A lot of men."

The Priestess snapped her fingers and her blue eyes drilled deep into Lissa's.

"Salixor. Dismissed all of those. As not important.. Four. Hundred. Thousand. Men.

"I understand the importance of that but—"

"Lord give me strength. It means that Gaelus is capable of dealing with all of those and then kill countless more! That means he's either an absolute monster of has an army at his disposal the likes of which we've never seen!"

"I... Lord in heaven, that can't be right... Can it Priestess? I mean, nobody's that strong. Even the strongest of our Order would fall if they had to fight alone. Numbers carry a significant weight in any engagement. That would mean he has an army of his own, but how could he have an army of that size without us knowing?"

"That I don't know. That is what worries me. How can a force of his strength come to be without anyone else knowing? The Order has people out gathering intelligence everywhere! The idea that we have such a massive gap in our defences is preposterous!"

"Then are you sure it is wise for us to go there? If a battle of that scale erupts, there is nothing we can do against it."

"That is true, but I think we might be overlooking a third option," she said after thinking for a while.

Lissa blinked. "I... What?"

"His strength may not be an army, or personal strength. It might be something entirely different. He is knowledgeable, isn't he? He may know how to, someway, through some means, ruin the harvest. Maltora is a kingdom focused on farming export. If their harvest failed, countless would suffer, starve and eventually die."

"Then why the entire assumption that he has an army?" the Paladin asked, not able to follow.

"Because that seems the most likely outcome. However."

Glissandi raised her hand.

"If I am confusing you, then I have reached my goal. Gaelus is a completely unknown factor. We know nothing of him, save for his name. We know not if Salixor speaks the truth or if he was simply overly impressed by his master's prowess in some fields. All that we know for sure, the Lord preserve us, is that he has very capable people serving him, not dissimilar to how our Order sends out parties. So we must gather more information, even if it costs us our lives. I do not gamble with them lightly, Lissa, but can we leave such a threat running loose without knowing what he is or what he can do? His abilities? The power he has at his disposal?"

Lissa humphed, then grinned.

"So what you're saying is you want us to stick our collective heads into the lion's mouth and see if it bites, and if it does then those who have seen it will know the lion for what it is."

"A crude analogy, but yes."

"Then say so from the start! You damn clerics are way too wordy for your own good!" she shouted, roughly messing up Glissandi's hair, who vainly tried to get the Paladin to stop.

"One way trip to possible suicide against a foe who might be a smart bunny or a ferocious lion. Heh. Lord, you sure make my life worth living," the Paladin laughed, exiting the wagon.

"You know, she's starting to like you, Priestess," Mira said, turning her head to the woman only a few year older than herself.

"Does she now? It does not feel like it, Mina." Glissandi sighed as she started the arduous task of putting her hair back in a proper shape.

"Mira, Priestess. And she does. Us Warriors are very physical. We're not very good with words." The Squire shrugged.

"Given how she's starting to manhandle you, that means she's accepted you as one of us."

"I... I did not know that."

"I figured you didn't," the Squire said with a shrug.

"I may be speaking out of turn, Priestess, but you have earned our respect as well." Her sister grunted in agreement but kept quiet.

"Don't know about Knight Trista though. She's always quiet. I heard a lot of horror tales on stupid Priestesses however and you're really a lot better than I feared you'd be. Certainly better than how I thought you were when we first met."

"Thank you Mira. I appreciate it."

The Priestess moved through the wagon until she was directly behind the girls.

"Although if I were you I'd be very careful with voicing that," she said in a conspiratorial tone.

"You told us to speak your mind, didn't you?" the girl asked, hesitation in her voice.

"Yes, but I can feel Lissa's angry glare burning through the canvas.

"Oh..." the girl whispered.

"Mira!" came Lissa's harsh voice.

"You're sparring with me the evening! The entire evening!"

"Yes sir," muttered a dejected Mira. Mina, sitting next to her sister, burst out laughing.

Glissandi watched the twins pair off against Lissa. It was an incredibly fast paced fight. Lissa was like the calm in the storm with the twins twirling around her. Trista was sitting beside her and providing the Priestess with commentary and was doing so with her usual lack of emotions. It had been an idea of the Paladin to improve the Priestess' knowledge of combat, given that they could hardly practise it directly with her. A Priestess landing on her behind and eating dust wasn't good for their general reputation after all and it gave them all something to do. Boredom had started to strike quickly after a few days of travelling with the Battalion.

"Whenever one of them attacks the other moves towards the Paladin's blind spots."

"What constitutes a blind spot?"

Trista gave her a look of slight wonder and the Priestess realised that the Knight found it weird that someone could not know that.

"Raise your left arm. Head height."

She did and tilted her slightly so she could keep looking at the Knight.

"You turned your head," Trista said, before turning her attention back to the fight.

Glissandi frowned at the Knight for a moment before she understood. Blind spots. Anything beyond your range of vision.

Mira ran in and delivered a heavy blow with her buckler while Mina, who was behind the Paladin, rushed in from the back. To the Priestess' surprise the Paladin didn't block the blow, but whirled around, tripping a surprised Mira and causing her to crash into her sister. The Imperial soldiers around them applauded the cunning display.

"Never overextend in an attack. Keep your senses sharp. If you can feel the attack, your blind spots are reduced by a significant factor. Overextending needs to be avoided as well. It puts you off balance. Balance is key in all fights. If you overextend and succeed, you are stupid and lucky. If you fail, you are stupid and dead."

Glissandi nodded as the Paladin tapped both Squires on the neck with her blade before sheathing it and walking off. Trista hopped off the coach box and went to join her superior. A sore Mina and Mira waved at the surrounding soldiers who laughed and wished them luck, before they too returned to their duties.

The girls took off their helmets and laughed, playfully punching each other against the shoulder. The look they exchanged told the Priestess they were somehow talking about the fight with each other. Then Mira caught the calculated look in the Priestess' eyes and their communication stopped. Whatever it was, it was clearly something the twins did not want to share. Glissandi walked over towards them and joined them on the coach box. She found climbing the thing a lot easier now than she had done in the past. She really had gained a lot of strength since she started travelling, even if she was still laughably weak compared to the others around her.

"That was an impressive fight," she complimented them.

"Impressive? Hah!" Mina let out a barking laugh. "The Paladin's one of the very few who can hold off both of us at the same time and makes us eat dust!"

"Is fighting two opponents at once really that hard?"

"Oh yeah!" the impulsive girl added before shoving her head into a bucket full of water. When she pulled it out she sighed deeply in relief as the cold water ran down from her face.

"Word to the wise, never fight two as one. I know the Paladin had us sparring with you, but we really held back. If I kick you in the head from the front and my sis kicks your ass from behind, you're down and dead before you can think."

"Sister!" Mira shouted, aghast.

Glissandi smiled and waved the comment away. Talking with the girls was refreshing. They were incredibly capable, yet reminded her of the young Aspirants back at the Monastery. Innocent, full of life and really not holding back. Mina far more so than Mira.

"So I take it the Paladin is all the more special then because she can hold off both of you at once?"

"Oh she can do more than that! She can kick our butts from here to the Bastion and back with ease if she wants!" Mina exclaimed, oblivious to the worried looks her sister was sending her way. She tumbled backwards, rolling inside the coach and just laid there, stretching, looking up at the canvas ceiling.

"She's incredible, really. She can sense our attacks, react to them with blinding speed, which ain't a small feat. You ever worn one of those suits? They weigh a ton! She's not having much issue with us either! Which is really damn great!" she shouted, throwing her fists up in the air. "Back at home nearly everyone was avoiding us because of it. One on one, two on two, damn near nobody wanted to spar with us anymore. Two on two we damn near beat everyone and the Knights didn't like losing to Squires and the good Paladins were never at home. So they just gave us chores and chores and chores!" the Squire complained.

Glissandi chuckled.

"Washing dishes, cleaning out stables, setting tables?"

"Oh yeah!" Mina nodded enthusiastically, sitting back up. "And weapon maintenance. Dusting out old armouries! Fetching materials for the smiths! Lord I hated that!"

The Priestess nodded amicably. "I understand."

"You do?" Mina asked, looking questioningly at the Priestess.

"Well, I never had to help blacksmiths or maintain weapons, but we had libraries." Her face contorted as she held out her hand and shook it back and forth.

"I had to copy a lot of manuscripts at times. Days on end." She leaned forward and gestured the Squires to do the same. Heads close together, she whispered conspiratorially. "I know it's a sacred task from the Lord, but there were times I just wanted to set fire to it all so I'd never have to pick up another pen."

Mina started laughing out loud, but quickly brought her hands on top of her mouth. Even so she could still not contain her laughter and just shook while tears ran down her face.

Glissandi smiled at the sight. Apparently the Squire took great delight in imagining the prim Priestess setting fire to a library.

Mira gave the Priestess a very vocal look.

Why are you trying to befriend us?

The Priestess answered the pointed look with a simple smile.

"You know, I'm happy I can speak with the both of you like this. Fewer rules. No chores. Nobody nagging."

Mira raised an eyebrow, wary that the Priestess took such a frontal approach.

"I'm new to all this," she explained herself, gesturing around. "I have never really left the Monastery before. All I know from the world I have learned through books. I know nothing of fighting and while they stuffed me chock full of knowledge about all sorts of things, I am discovering more and more that I really know very little. Then all this constant training. Sometimes I just want to be able to pause it all, can you understand that? Just... be me for a little while. Not the Priestess."

Mina nodded emphatically but Mira remained wary. Mina responded to the wary look by elbow-stomping her sister in the side. Glissandi winced at the blow.

"You know Priestess, you're alright. I always thought your kind was supposed to be stuck up, but you treat us fairly and don't dismiss us as if we're too young to tell Light from Dark. So in a way, we're lucky to have you as our lead woman."

Mina rolled back a bit before jumping to her feet in a surprising feat of athletics.

"Then again," she continued with a broad grin, "you can bless the Lord that he didn't saddle you with some of the other Squires. There's real lazy-bones and idiots amongst those. You really got the cream of the crop with us!" She winked and Glissandi laughed at the shameless girl.

You idiot! Stop trusting her so much! We barely know her! The thought Mira sent out was like a needle poking in her brain and Mina barely managed to stop herself from turning around and punching her sister's lights out. Instead she answered differently, sending a full blast of emotions back. She relied on her instincts, like she always had and those told her that the Priestess could be trusted. The strength behind her own thoughts made her sister wince slightly, something that immediately caught the Priestess' attention, who asked if she was alright.

"I'm fine, Priestess. That blow my sister gave me early stings a bit still," she lied smoothly.

Glissandi nodded emphatically and continued onto a new subject.

"So to breach on something we all have on our minds, what do you think about this Gaelus character?"

"You're asking for our opinion?"

"Well, last time you brought Cassandra's motives to attention, did you not? You tend to think differently than the rest of us, maybe you can spot things I have overlooked."

Mina nodded, Mira glared and the Priestess waited.

"I think he's dangerous."

Mira rolled her eyes and started coughing like mad a moment later when an angry sister rammed her elbow into her side again, a lot harder this time.

"I overheard your talk with the Paladin. If he can kill that many people... I don't think you can do that by hand. No way. That's just impossible. And in fighting, well, you can kill a lot of people on your own but if he wants to kill the entire Maltoran army he needs an army of his own. He has these special people around, right? But even so he'd need a lot of them to do that. I don't think he has that many. Even the Order would be hard pressed to field that many people in one go and we are a nation in our own right."

The Priestess nodded. So far the girl's thoughts went along her own.

"But what if he can make diseases?"

"What?" the Priestess asked, blinking.

"You said that he could maybe ruin the harvest and cause people to starve, but that still is a lot of land and people would start paying close attention after a while. It also takes too much time, by the time he'd travel around enough to visit every field, most would be harvested and be put under heavy guard. But sickness doesn't need that. People travel all the time. I remember... Mira, what was it called again?"

"The Touch of Darkness," her sister coughed.

Glissandi paled. She remember reading about that dark part of history. An incredibly virulent plague. It had started somewhere in the far north. A lot of people assumed it was a curse, because the firsts one to fall ill had been an expedition in an ancient ruin. The plague had run rampant through the northern countries for years and only an absolute quarantine had saved them all. If you caught the plague, you lived on for roughly two weeks without any visible symptoms, then they would strike in a single day. Black spots all over your body, aches and pains everywhere and before the day would be over, you would be dead. Burning the dead hadn't stopped the plague. It had brought upon near total destruction of the northern nations. Scratch that, it had brought total destruction. Less than one in fifty thousand had survived. There had been survivors scattered here and there, but the nations themselves were gone. Even now few people dared venture north, even if the event was over a thousand years ago. It had been well documented thanks to the parties of the Order that had travelled there in an attempt to heal the ill. They had written everything down in neat accounts, before succumbing as well and had given the order to cut off the north from the rest of the world.

Mina nodded.

"If he could somehow create something like that..." she continued, before falling silent as she saw Glissandi's face.

"Lord preserve us all. I had not thought of that. If he can do that, then we are all doomed."

She rushed to her feet and all but jumped off the coach box.

"Colonel!" she shouted. "I must sent a message to my superiors! To yours as well! It is of the utmost urgency!"

Inside the coach the twins looked at one another, the sheer size of the threat they were facing finally dawning on them.

Mina looked at her sister for a good long while before speaking.

"Bet you a gold coin I'm right."

Mira responded by whacking her sister with her buckler.