Chapter 178: Strategic Conduct
The short walk to the meeting room was filled with an awkward silence between me and the immaculately-dressed elven secretary.
I wanted to stop by my sister’s room, but the elf insisted that the meeting take precedence. My eyes drifted and I found myself looking for anyone familiar—mostly Tess. It was probably because of that damned scene I imagined of us hugging each other, about to kiss.
To my disappointment and worry, the secretary informed me that Tessia and her team had gone back to their post in the Beast Glades.
“When did they leave?” I asked.
“They departed yesterday at sunrise, General Arthur,” she replied almost robotically just before stopping in front of the closed meeting room.
The guard on each side of the wooden door immediately stepped aside, sliding open the entrance upon seeing the two of us approach.
The two guards thumped the hilts of their spears on the ground in salute. “General.”
I walked into the circular room after dismissing the secretary, meeting the gaze of the Council and the other lances.
It didn’t take long for the meeting to begin once we had all gathered—minus Aldir, our missing ambassador for the asuras. However, with Rahdeas and Olfred no longer in the Council, the once cramped meeting room seemed eerily spacious.
We had barely taken our seats when King Glayder unleashed his anger. Slamming his fists on the circular table we were currently sitting around, the burly king roared, “What was the point of Lord Aldir taking control of the artifact if he was just going to run off to who knows where!”
“This isn’t the time to be blowing up on something we can’t change,” Alduin snapped in irritation.
“He’s right,” Priscilla Glayder agreed. “There are more urgent things we need to cover if we are to recover ourselves from this setback.”
Blaine looked at his wife incredulously but the queen ignored her husband’s gaze.
Merial, who sat beside her husband, finally peeled her eyes off of the stack of parchment she had been going through and spoke. “I’ve gathered and read through several accounts of what transpired, one of which was from Aya, but I think it’s best we start with Arthur’s account of what happened.”
“I agree,” Virion spoke, turning his tired gaze to me. The man had been old for as long as I had known him, but these past few years had really taken a toll on his body and psyche. This was evidenced by the deep dark bags under his eyes and the way his face had contorted into a perpetual frown.
Blaine’s deep red hair was practically ablaze as he leaned back in his seat, simmering like a flame eager to be fed the fuel to unleash his anger once more.
“Sure,” I said, resting my arms on the table. Normally, the lances stood behind their respective artifact holder but with the extra seats available and the fact that even standing took a toll on my fatigued body, I was allowed to sit down.
Recapping the events starting from the day Olfred, Mica and I set off on our mission didn’t take long. The members of the Council stopped me every once in a while if they needed clarification or further details but otherwise let me talk.
Aside from omitting the detail that I wasn’t the one that had defeated Uto, but rather his ally, I told the Council everything I knew. By the end of my story, Virion nodded thoughtfully.
“How is it that Arthur, who’s not yet reached the white-core stage, was able to defeat not one but two retainers while a lance had been killed so helplessly?” Blaine asked, suspicion laced in his voice.
Virion’s eyes narrowed. “What are you trying to gain by being so skeptical of General Arthur?”
“Perhaps knowing how he had come out victorious on both accounts can better prepare the rest of the lances in future battles against the retainers and scythes,” Blaine said with a shrug.
Priscilla put a placating hand on her husband’s arm, trying to intervene. “Dear—”
“King Blaine has a point,” I cut in. “The first retainer I had fought against wasn’t as strong as Uto—the retainer that we now have imprisoned. Even then, I came out with these scars and a broken sword that had been forged by an asura.”
Everyone besides Virion showed some form of surprise on their face when I took off the glove on my left hand and pulled down on my tunic to expose my neck, but none of them said a word.
I continued. “Uto, on the other hand, had the ability to kill me and Sylvie on sight but that wasn’t what he was after. That particular Vritra’s only motivation seemed to be enjoying a good battle. When I didn’t seem to be that much of a threat, he lowered his guard to try and incite me into a fit of rage by threatening to kill those close to me. Sylvie and I were able to capitalize on his carelessness and destroy his horns.”
“How did you know that destroying a Vritra’s horns would have any effect on their ability to fight?” a clear voice rang from behind Priscilla. The one to ask the question was Varay Aurae.
I shook my head. “I didn’t. I doubt even the asuras knew, otherwise they would’ve told us. But I remember the late lance, Alea, mentioning how furious Uto had gotten when she chipped off a fragment of his horn.”
My lie wasn’t the most well-thought-out, but bringing up Alea seemed to convince even Blaine and Bairon, who had both been studying me critically throughout my story. It felt wrong deceiving everyone, especially Virion. But I didn’t trust anyone at this point and I knew that telling Virion now—without any idea of what the Seris’ goal was—would only burden the commander more.
“The retainer’s power seemed to diminish significantly after we destroyed his horns”—I emphasized ‘destroyed’—“and we were soon able to barely overpower him. After securing Uto, the only thing I remember is General Aya waking me up.”
“Thank you for the explanation,” Virion said after a brief pause. “Queen Priscilla, would you like to go over the next matter of business?”
With a nod, the queen spoke. “The most crucial factor in this war right now is the alliance with the dwarves. With Rahdeas imprisoned and held for questioning, we have no one to effectively lead the dwarves. Furthermore, after General Arthur’s reconnaissance in Darv, it’s obvious that either a faction, or multiple factions are willfully assisting the Alacryan army.”
“What if we send some military forces from Sapin into Darv to oversee the dwarves?” Alduin suggested.
King Blaine, who had since calmed down, shook his head. “Military presence from the humans would only frighten the dwarves more into thinking that we want to control them. Things will get even more out of hand if we force our way into this.”
An idea flickered in my mind but seeing the rest of the lances relatively silent, I wasn’t sure whether I had the authority to weigh in. It might’ve just been that the three lances present weren’t knowledgeable in wide-scale military and political tactics given their focus on combat. Regardless, I started off with a question. “Was Rahdeas’ capture made public?”
King Blaine raised a brow. “No, it wasn’t. Part of this meeting was to discuss how to handle the traitor and the fact that we’re down one lance and can’t replace him because our ambassador of the asuras has gone on a little vacation.”
“Then why not use that to our advantage?” I suggested, hoping someone would catch on.
Thankfully, Virion did. His face lit up the way it had when Tessia and I were just children. “Brilliant! Arthur, remind me never to fight a war against you.”
Virion didn’t have to explain much before everyone else in the room caught on and even offered insights on how to actualize my inkling of an idea. The people here were smart after all.
Basically, the Council would put on the guise that Rahdeas was never captured. They would have to make Rahdeas spill how he communicated with his people but after doing so, they’d be able to send out orders as if it were from Rahdeas himself.
“We wouldn’t be able to do anything radical like have them immediately go against the Alacryans, since Rahdeas had been so adamant on helping them, but we can at least secure information by posing as him,” Merial said excitedly.
The atmosphere in the room became a bit lighter as hope slowly bubbled up. The next list on the agenda was discussing how to proceed with General Mica’s questioning and Uto’s interrogation.
“General Mica’s questioning will be held by me, while General Aya will be handling the Vritra we have imprisoned,” Virion announced. “However, Rahdeas’ interrogation should take precedence at this point to secure the dwarves’ allegiance. Anyone think otherwise?”
The rest of us shook our heads. We all agreed; getting control of Darv was crucial in winning this war.
“Good,” Virion continued. “Then we’ll discuss the details regarding General Mica’s and the retainer’s questioning in our next meeting.”
The Council continued, covering several more items on the agenda, most of which pertained to the condition of a particular city.
Merial, who had been organizing the stacks of parchment around her area, pulled out the next subject to discuss. Her glance flickered to me as she hesitated a second before handing the piece of paper to her father-in-law.
Virion’s lips were in a grim line while reading the report but by the time he had finished reading, there was a look of relief on his face. “The next order of business is the supply road. There was another attack on one of our carriages transporting supplies to the Wall. Thankfully, the carriage had been close enough to Blackbend City that reinforcements were able to get there in time.”
“How many deaths?” Priscilla asked.
“Three deaths and four injured, all of whom were merchants employed by the Helstea group,” Merial read aloud.
“Damn those dwarves,” King Blaine muttered angrily. “As if the Alacyrans weren’t a pain in the ass to begin with! Because of them, our enemies have access to their underground network that leads to who knows how far up the southern border of my kingdom.”
A bad feeling crept in at the mention of the Helstea name, but all things considered, the damage could’ve been worse. “Well, thankfully they were able to get back up in time.”
Merial looked up at me and paused for a beat. “Yes. It also helped that the party tasked with protecting the carriage had an emitter with them—Alice Leywin.”
I thought I had misheard for a moment, but by the tense gazes of those around me, I knew I hadn’t.
Virion spoke first in a reassuring tone. “Like the report said, none of the Twin Horns were killed.”
The only thing I was able to muster at that point was a weary nod. The old elf’s voice sounded muffled against the throbbing of the blood rushing to my head. Virion had just said my parents and the Twin Horns were alive, but it felt like I was overcome with a feeling of just barely avoiding death. Suddenly, those three deaths that Merial had read aloud sounded much more real. It could’ve been them and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.
“Arthur?” a concerned voice rang.
Snapping out of my daze, I looked back at the commander. “Sorry, I’m okay. Please continue.”
I had a thousand questions but they were all personal. My parents and I had had a less-than-ideal parting. My selfishness of wanting them hidden safely within the castle hadn’t helped to mend our still-healing relationship after I had revealed my secret. They had told me they wanted to help out in the war, but the thought of them actually being in danger had never resurfaced until now.
The temptation of just leaving this room and going down to the surface to meet my parents grew, but I knew they would disapprove of me abandoning my duties to just check in on them. Reluctantly, I focused my attention back on the matter at hand.
The Council was discussing a better way to optimize the supply routes from Blackbend, the major city near the southeast corner of Sapin, to the Wall.
“How about an underground route?” King Alduin suggested, pointing near the center of the map that they had just unrolled.
King Blaine shook his head, leaning forward and pointing below the area where Blackbend was located. “The city is too close to the Kingdom of Darv. There will probably already be dozens of underground passages that the dwarves have dug in over time. It’ll be too dangerous to try that until we secure our alliance with them.”
“What’s Blackbend like?” I asked, taking a close look at the map.
“The economy in Blackbend centers around potato farmers from nearby villages and adventurers because of how close it is to the Beast Glades. The city is currently responsible for the supply of rations as well as the manufacturing of weapons—mainly arrows—for the soldiers,<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>which is why it’s crucial for there to be a secure mode of transport to the Wall,” Queen Priscilla answered seriously.
“The terrain around it is mostly flat farmland, which makes it hard for carriages carrying supplies to go unnoticed,” Bairon added, speaking for the first time in this meeting.
“Thank you,” I said to them both. The queen’s knowledge was informative but it also made me realize that my question was vague. Bairon’s answer was what I needed to know.
As the Council discussed more ideas on how to better secure the supply route, my mind drifted to ways the people of this world wouldn’t be able to consider. Thinking back to the ship that I had helped Gideon design a few years back, I looked at the map. Unfortunately,<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>there was no river near the Wall or Blackbend City but it gave me an idea.
“King Blaine,” I called out, interrupting their discussion. “How many dwarves adept in metal manipulation do you have that can help us?”
“There are numerous metal mages—or metal shapers as they call themselves—among the dwarves, but ones that are trustworthy enough for a large task”—the king paused to think for a second—“a handful, maybe.”
Queen Priscilla nodded in agreement.
Without pause I turned to Tess’ father. “King Alduin, how many elves adept in nature magic can you gather?”
The elven king looked at his wife as he rubbed his cleanly-shaven chin.
Merial began looking through another pile of papers when Aya spoke up. “Four, currently on standby. The rest are currently on missions.”
“What’s this about?” Virion asked.
“Let me get back to you once I sort out the logistics of this idea with Gideon,” I said absentmindedly, the gears in my mind working furiously as I reasoned how this plan would ultimately speed up the process of transporting supplies as well as keep the passengers and workers—mainly my parents and the Twin Horns—safe.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>
The meeting concluded soon after and I got up to leave the stifling room when Virion held me back. “Before we depart, I wanted to address something.”
I stood silently waiting for him to continue, curious.
“During times of war, it’s impossible to reward every deed accomplished. However, I think that slaying not one, but two retainers”—the commander shifted his gaze from me to Aya—“as well as eliminating a dangerous traitor and subduing a scheme that could’ve potentially killed thousands of civilians, calls for a reward of some kind.”<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>
“Thank you, Commander Virion,” Aya said politely. “But what I did was to help us win this war, not for a personal reward.”
Virion nodded. “General Arthur? What about you?”
I’d learned from my past life that, in situations like this, it’s best to dismiss the reward and just thank him for his kindness, but this was also the perfect opportunity to address something that had been weighing on my mind since this last battle against Uto.
“Actually, there is something that I would like—rather, a few things,” I said innocently.
The two kings and queens looked at me in surprise, but Virion simply let out a chuckle. “Very well, let me hear them!”
I made my way to Ellie’s room, so we could visit Sylvie together, feeling much more light-hearted—happy, even. <span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>
Even Virion was stunned at first when I told him that I wanted to withhold going on missions for the near future. I didn’t blame him; we had just lost a lance, possibly two. Having another one saying he wanted a break would take a huge toll on our side.
However, I needed some time to train, and after explaining that, with the war escalating at the pace it was, I wouldn’t have much chance to later on. He agreed… somewhat.
“Two months is the most I can offer, and even then I can’t promise that you won’t be sent out if something major occurs,” he had said reluctantly.
‘Something major’ seemed a bit ambiguous but it was fair.
“In addition, since you won’t be going on missions, you’ll be required to take part in the Council meetings,” he had added. “If the past is any indication, I know having you here—weighing in your thoughts—will prove useful.”
This was a bit harder to swallow. One of the few things I dreaded now and in my previous life was meetings like the one today. However, I needed time to study and absorb Uto’s horns that the scythe had referred to as an ‘invaluable resource.’
“Out of curiosity, how do you plan on training here in the castle?” Alduin had asked before I left.
“It’s part of what I need next as my reward,” I had answered holding up four fingers. “I need four conjurers, each of different elemental affinity.”
“Four?” Virion had repeated. The members of the Council were obviously confused but I knew by the glimmer in the lances’ eyes that they understood what I had planned.
The halls were empty so my walk to Ellie’s room went uninterrupted. I thought of how to greet my baby sister. I knew it was hard for her waiting for me and our parents, not knowing when we’d come back. So being the considerate brother that I am, I knocked on the large wooden door that had been remodeled to fit her bond, and in a shrill breathy voice, I wailed, “Ellie… It is the ghost of your brother. I have come to haunt you!”
I didn’t need to be a genius to deduce that my sister was less than amused when she coldly muttered from the other side of the door, “Boo, attack.”
Unfortunately, it was only after a 700-pound bear came charging at me that I realized that perhaps my sister’s sense of humor more resembled that of our mother.
My body flew back to the other end of the hall as Boo’s body slammed against me. More impressed that the walls hadn’t crumbled from the impact, I pushed the hulking mana beast at arms-length.
“Good to see you too, buddy,” I chuckled wearily, avoiding the pool of drool forming underneath him.
The beast let out a grunt, spraying a mixture of saliva and froth on my face.
“Ghost? Really, Brother?” my sister grumbled, her arms crossed in mock-anger.
I pushed aside Boo and wiped my dripping face with a sleeve. “Haha, I can’t say I didn’t deserve that.”
It didn’t take long for Ellie’s stern scowl to soften. She walked up and wrapped her arms around me. “Welcome back, Brother.”
I gently patted my sister’s head and I could feel the tension in my body unwinding for the first time since arriving at the castle. “It’s good to be back.”