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Previous: A large, heavily armed Imperial squad come across an small, unrecorded hamlet that had been recently massacred by unknown hostiles. They investigate and discover an old sarcophagus that turns out to contain a living man who is either an Imperial noble, or an eldritch monster from the depths, or both.


*

Timín wakes up to the stink of death. It is everywhere in the darkness around him. He gets up, moves around, leaves the "house" he is in - the corner of the wall that happens to have a bit of roof over it still - and wherever he goes, it is there. It's seeped into his uniform.

He can still see the faces. The bloated and blue, green slimy bug-eyed stares, wall-eyed but still somehow looking right into him, women and children, old men and maidens. They cry out to him in his sleep: How long? How long must they lie in the darkness of the pit? How long must they go unavenged?

Suddenly the corpses are yellow and brown. The pit is the wine-dark sea, and he is inside an old photograph of the Xiniënar teleport station, before it was burned. The bodies arise - tens, hundreds, all along the docks and the catwalks and down the halls and climbing over the turnstiles - and stare at him. Timín is in an Imperial uniform, an enlisted man, in a style no one has used in decades. The name tag says "Cpl. Gitimurka". It is not his name. His spear is dripping with liquid screams.

How long must they go unavenged?

He hears himself narrating in his long-dead grandfather's voice, that mendacious red-jowled old cunt, tinny and warped in a holo-recording long since dumped somewhere in the bottom of the bay: "There were thousands of the skinnies around us! Damn near woulda killed us all if Captain Arramas hadn't blown down the wall to our nine while we were runnin'! We scrambled up the rubble and found three of their necros turning the whole place black with their zombies, poppin' up everywhere! You ever seen those mattresses they pull out of the poor-house, they rip 'em open, the bed bugs just pour right out? Imagine that with a whole lotta dead jellies. Was a glorious day for the Empire, that!"

Zombies. Skinnies. Jellies. Bugs. Young men and maidens, old men and children.

How long?

He looks over at what's left of his 40. Captain gave him a direct order not to touch it in the morning. Captain is asleep. Still dark. No one would know.

He does not touch it.


**

Captain Sarkamen watches a few rosy fingers of dawn reach over the eastern mountains as he passes by some of the men in their morning prayers. No two of them are to the same god. To this day he marvels that Imperial society can do so well without that redundant cohesion. He hated the Civil Deist common prayers that were mandatory when he was a Citizen: joyless and grating, devoid of poetry and utterly severed from the heart. The prayers to the sun were more beautiful and meaningful in every way: when he first became an Imperial citizen he welcomed every dawn with them. Then other things happened, sleep schedules were interrupted, night raids became a thing, as did coffee and paperwork, and they were no longer even technically mandatory after he was transferred to the Reclamation Corps. So he stopped.

He finds Lord Ytoroghullatar standing in the middle of the dirt road leading east out of town, hands outstretched, still as a statue. He's no louder than any of the other murmurers and mumblers (to do otherwise is to invite cacophony and chaos), but Captain Sarkamen recognizes it immediately: the Arise, O Sacred Earth, Receive Thou This Holy Light that he first heard on his excursion a lifetime ago, in flawless Old Atharan. He does not recognize the tone being sung: bare of the usual modern embellishments, it seems a better fit for bringing some hope to the desolate chill of this winter dawn. He stands next to him and holds up his arms.

"By Thy light we bless this earth and all that liveth."

Tyr comes in with the rejoinder. "By Thy radiance we receive our life." It is as though he has sung this tone since he was a child.

He is late. Another general intercession for mortal creation, a doxology, and the prayer is soon over. Tyr begins to wonder if he's overstepped his bounds when Lord Ytoroghullatar turns to him with tears in his eyes and embraces him. "Good morning to you, brother."


***

The rose of dawn is fading away. People have woken up, eaten what breakfast they could stomach and are ready to move.

Captain Sarkamen is finishing his report. Just need to fill in a few more pieces of information, then format it into the data crystal, turn on the comm, beam it over to HQ and hopefully by the time they reach the Blue Temple they'll have given him a properly redacted version he can present to the Xhel.

Just one detail left: who is this guy who just joined the squad who is now capable at any time of overriding the captain's orders?

Fortunately, besides Old Atharan which is only known to the squad to the extent that the prayers to the Sun are written in it, it turns out Lord Ytoroghullatar speaks fluent Common, which speeds up communications drastically.

Captain Sarkamen would rather have taken his chances with the Old Atharan: Common is a wretched language. Its orthography is an arbitrary jumble of inconsistent phonetic spellings, graphemes and exception-based ad-hoc attempts at rules; the grammatical gender makes distinctions that only make sense if you understand the old Xhel caste systems that no one ought to waste their time learning except as an example of how not to run a just and decent society; it seems half the dead metaphors are openly racist; with its strange consonants and ugly misplaced rhythms, it is shrill coming from a woman, piercing like a thousand needle-like daggers, and rough, sharp and contemptuously angry coming from a man. And the gods themselves forbid that one might have to interact socially with someone who spoke only Common and measured all other languages by its obscene and perverse standards!

Thus far here is what Lord Ytoroghullatar is willing to share. He was born in the autumn of 3044 to two loving parents and three extremely doting grandparents. He spent most of his life in Narghatatarmai, a small manor village in rural Athara Province where his family had their original holdings. He was trained as a law clerk and notary in the local courthouse; previous attempts to dabble in being a full-time advocate had proved unfruitful.

He was not quite forty when he was stationed as a diplomat in Xiniënar. He had fallen in love with the language (Captain Sarkamen visibly reels at this) as a youth; before his first voyage even began he had assisted in producing one of the first Common/Razvalin dictionaries ever picked up by a major publisher.

(Corporal Hotha surreptitiously checks the first few pages of his twenty-seventh-edition pocket dictionary, those pages no one ever reads. He sees the name and at last believes.)

To establish their presence on the new continent, the Empire had early on bought several large tracts of land between Idrepholon and Tobhainan. After a major win for the Empire in negotiating a trade treaty, as well as the publication of his joint work with the botanist Dr. Awad Pharraz documenting the flora of the islands between the two continents (the second edition of which was sold with a small pocket cookbook just in case), he was given a new title and domain in the south. On the western edge of this domain sat his manor, under which, after a long and colourful career the latter portion of which he said relatively little, Lord Ytoroghullatar had directed he be buried.

How did he die? "Of a broken heart", yearning for that experience of the apepnum that had been shown to him in secret one misty summer morn. When pressed for details, he gets this sad, wistful look in his eye and is silent.

(Tyr and Sergeant Bathtis are convinced that the sad wistful bit is entirely genuine, while Lieutenant Azagh is equally convinced that he's still hiding something; the necromancer and Engineer-Sergeant Grullo later point out that the two are not mutually exclusive.)

How did he come back to life? He does not know the specific mechanism: all he knows is that he is truly alive, remembers his past life as Lord Ytoroghullatar, and but for the passing of the many years would only that he could pick up from where he had left off. After some consideration he is willing to admit that he has no memory of having an alternate tentacle-monster form prior to his death and burial.

Whatever happened, a few tests with the mould that was growing on him leaves it almost certain that Engineer-Sergeant Grullo's theory about the magic-eating fungi is right and that was what was keeping Lord Ytoroghullatar alive underground. Leaks in the sarcophagus and closer inspection of the bottom of the pit confirm this, as well as Lord Ytoroghullatar's vague recollection of being fed by "dark glowing shadows" brought to him by some unknown benevolent force. By his request, most of this fungus is re-planted inside the pit with access to the groundwater, while he, Engineer-Sergeant Grullo and Agent Tsuga bottle up samples for their own personal study later. Each with its own fragment of the hollow apepnum thorn the original symbiotic spores had been carried in, of course.

Where is the rest of the manor? He has no idea. Many of the stones that "Sam's crew" dug up turn out on closer inspection to be masonry, but it only accounts for parts of the floor and a few walls, and the remains of some broken bits and fires and rubbish from who knows what. Most likely the manor was later abandoned and most of the masonry removed to build other things - possibly including the hamlet and the shrine (but they would have been re-cut, worn and whitewashed beyond Lord Ytoroghullatar's ability to recognize anything if that were the case). A quick consultation of the squad comm's briefing database shows that between then and now, this area had also been intermittently flooded for a few decades when they redirected a local river; that river has since dried up, leaving only the underwater portion feeding the well.

No one can figure out what those big boulders were for or how they could have gotten into the scarcely hundred-year-old river sediment.


****

"Xhel infantry spotted at 11 o'clock, 500 to 600 yards. Three horse, around fifteen foot, one humanoid construct."

"Bearing?"

"West-southwest, looks like. They haven't seen us yet. Getting closer."

"Keep moving for now, but be ready for action once I give the order."

"And if they shoot you first, sir?"

"Lord Ytoroghullatar may resume command at any time if he so wishes." Lord Ytoroghullatar waves away the notion, shaking his head.

"What then, sir?"

"Then Tsuga sticks her hand up my ass and ventriloquizes the order in a funny voice." Of course Lieutenant Azagh is next in rank after the noble and the captain, but a few of the men scarcely ever hide how little they relish the thought. Better her than the doctor, at least.

The squad continue on their way; at this rate, they would pass each other without crossing paths. Little else out here - the remains of the small fields and gardens behind them, a small forest a quarter mile to the southeast on their right. Invisible birds chirp in the tall yellow-green grass. Half an hour ago they came across a similarly coloured herd of shovel-beaked moose (by blood more goose than moose, but the men could not be trusted to pronounce the local name for them), attracted to the smell of the carrots the necromancer was eating. Captain Sarkamen gave an explicit order not to feed them that Lord Ytoroghullatar immediately overrode.

He needed the reality. The hot breath on his face, the mournful yet inquisitive hoo-uuuurm, hoo-uuuurm! of their lowing, the smiles on the faces of the necromancer and the men around her (you can tell if a northerner has a soul if they can never, ever quite learn to take the dinosaurs for granted), their bristling hides under his gloved hand. They were welcoming him back.

Because no one else from this continent is. Who did those xigorrthu belong to and why were they running around unsupervised? Where is the road that used to run through here, with its cobbles yellow as fresh wood and stocky stone lantern-posts every quarter mile that sprang up like eye-stalks gaily watching out for the passerby? Perhaps his memory has failed him and they are indeed a few miles north of that road; but why? Has that forest truly overgrown the road and everything in it? Who or what is in that forest now? Surely the Xhel Empire has not fallen so much since he had gone - has it really been that long? If so, why does the forest up ahead by the foothills look younger than the old-growth that he remembers, where he had to stop his subjects from lynching a man for attempting to chop down a single dying tree? And what did Raiahadama say happened to the Umirrja River? The patrol is approaching them: perhaps they may have some answers.

The Xhel Commonwealth and the Atharan Empire are officially not at war. Out here on this old floodplain, at the foothills of the Great Swarthwall, the exact legal claim by the Xhel Commonwealth has been disrupted by multiple local tribal claims of the Empire's then-allies during the Disconnect Wars, raising numerous issues that have yet to be resolved. Under the existing treaty (or so the Imperial lawyers last said) it is legal for both Xiniënar and Athara to perform routine patrols in the area and secure their respective interests against various insurgent groups and supernatural anomalies.

Which means that Lieutenant Azagh is technically in violation of the existing treaties when she runs her horse a few paces in the direction of the Xhel and turns on her hoplophage at maximum range.

The splat-thunk! splat-thunk! and jagged orange starbursts that flash onto the transparent energy wall a second later confirm that those technicalities have just been shot quite dead by some overeager Xhel musketeers.

"Hold your fire! Get into position! Flash the beacon for parley!"

To their credit, they stop shooting as soon as the Imperials even raise the beacon pole. Nonetheless Captain Sarkamen makes sure they can see the flashing parley beacon before he lets anyone advance in front of the hop line.

Lord Ytoroghullatar addresses the captain in Common. No interpretation needed; all the captain needs to do is nod and cede command. The two ride out to meet the Xhel, flanked by Sergeant Bathtis and two more men, the necromancer ten paces behind on her horse to provide a distraction in case of a Charlie Fox. The nobleman's booming voice is not quite as rumbling and inhuman as it was when he first demanded the squad release him, but it is certainly audible anywhere on that plain: "We come in peace!"

The sergeant commanding the Xhel recon team has her hand raised, directing her men to hold their fire, but their weapons remain trained on the Imperials who decide to stop just outside of pistol and wand range.

Captain Sarkamen does a quick count. Thirteen men all told. No immediately obvious casters. No hoplophage or heavy wands. A couple crossbows: he can't see any explosive tips, so most likely spells. (immolation? ball lightning? poison?) No wounded. The only thing that makes this anything but a light recon team is the golem, which standing back there almost looks - tense - at the situation. Its parts are beautifully decorated. Could they be delivering a gift of some sort? But if so, why are they stopping to attack us?

"We come in peace," Lord Ytoroghullatar repeats, dismounted and arms outstretched. "We mean you no harm. What brings you friends out here?"

The Xhel sergeant spits. The horse under her pins her ears and swishes her tail. "Was gonna ask the same thing of you, buddy. Who the fuck are you and what are you all doing out here? Raping our women, stealing our grain, turning our good lord's green earth into another one of your orc kennels? What's gonna stop me from shooting the lot of you goons right now?"

In unison Captain Sarkamen and Sergeant Bathtis begin to reach for, then stop short of, their weapons. They have better armaments and more men than this recon team, and at least four casters: if this delegation were shot dead right now the rest of the squad would avenge them in no time, and this foul-mouthed feral sow of a sergeant clearly knows that.

Lord Ytoroghullatar's tone and demeanour do not change in the slightest. "My name is Sulímo, Lord Ytoroghullatar of Westshire-by-Swarthwall. I was" - he shifts his weight - "imprisoned by unknown forces and left for dead until I was discovered by my companions here. We are on our way to the Blue Temple."

The sergeant scoffs. "Don't insult me! Do you take me for some illiterate back-country swineherd, that I wouldn't know that Westershire hasn't been recognized by Athara since the Disconnect? We have fifty men stationed at the BT who will be on your asses in no time if you try anything. You have one last chance to identify yourselves before I make this ugly." Sergeant Bathtis puts his finger on his temple and attempts to telepathically communicate his comeback re: "ugly" to Lord Ytoroghullatar; it's not clear if he succeeded, given the older man would not have had any of it anyway.

Nor would the captain. "Captain Tyr Sarkamen, 23rd Recon 'Skull Spider' Company, Angelwing Battalion, Consuming Fire Regiment, First Division Reclamation Corps. If you were in regular contact with your people at the Blue Temple you would know that they are expecting us. If you contact them now, you may let them know that we are running behind schedule." He has Sergeant Bathtis interpret from Atharan, on strict orders not to embellish anything unless and until they were already in combat.

Awkward silence. Corporal Hotha, not hearing a word of all this, gets bored, puts up his binocs and scans the Xhel horses in case the shit hits the fan and they can try to knock out their comm at the start of the fight. He can't find it at first; it turns out one of their men is wearing it as a backpack. Is that a bullet hole?

"Sergeant Eraxhmaga", replies the Xhel sergeant, then repeats a serial number no one cares to remember. The captain notes the death's-head moth and crossed scimitar patch on their uniforms - from a distance, in a bad light, it might have been confusingly similar to their own. "We have heard reports of an assault on a Blue Temple outpost last week in this area. You know anything about that?"

"You mean the one just behind us? We have investigated the matter and buried the dead. Imperial property had been discovered in the area and also retrieved. A report has also been prepared for the Blue Temple."

Pause. "So you tampered with a crime scene in Commonwealth territory."

"Treaty of Idrepholon 3261, Article GG.4.1(a)(iii.1). The place had clearly been abandoned for days."

Corporal Hotha frowns. Why do these guys look so familiar... he gives Lieutenant Azagh the binocs. She looks and quiety mouths a few choice obscenities.

"Madness! You Atharans dare to use 3261 for this? We will have your heads for this impudence!"

Captain Sarkamen rattles off Article GG.4.1(a)(iii.1) from memory in Atharan. Sergeant Bathtis hems and haws. Lord Ytoroghullatar volunteers a translation. During this time Sergeant Eraxhmaga's men find a copy on what's left of their comm and the moment Lord Ytoroghullatar stops speaking she reads it out in Common.

It turns out that the Common version requires that the Imperials have reasonably confirmed that the local Commonwealth authorities had ceded authority, in words that clearly (Sergeant Bathtis confirms this) imply a duty to consult before further action could be taken. The Atharan version, meanwhile, simply requires that the Imperials had reasonable cause to believe that the local Xhel authorities were failing to exercise their authority, with language that implies immediate action is required wherever the Imperial forces consider it necessary or helpful to protect local or Imperial interests.

They spend five minutes loudly bickering over the exact legislative history of the wording. No agreement nor admission nor "let's just suppose for argument's sake this were true" can be reached.

Lieutenant Azagh turns on the hoplophage again. A couple of Eraxhmaga's men tense up and point their weapons at the Imperial squad as they see the sphere of blue crackling arcs on the Imperial side. Lord Ytoroghullatar stops even pretending to pay attention to any of it. Surely all legislation is vanity.

Captain Sarkamen and Sergeant Eraxhmaga suddenly stop yelling at each other, a look of horrified mutual recognition on their faces. They had this exact same dispute three months ago at the scene of a murder in a village to the north. Both of them ended up getting shot by their own men in the fracas that ensued. The Imperials ultimately retreated under heavy fire (and the captain went back to an even heavier stack of paperwork and inquiries) and the question itself was never resolved - each of their superiors simply confirmed their own respective self-serving positions. if they continue on like this, it will again come to blows, and shooting out in the open will almost guarantee fatalities.

The only reasonable way to resolve this is with a duel. If the Empire wins, they part ways as though nothing happened; if the Commonwealth wins, the Imperial squad goes to the Blue Temple anyway, disarmed and under the Xhel recon squad's guard as potential war criminals.




Weapons are lowered. The Imperial troops are brought up and briefed on the situation. Some bare dirt is located and a ring is drawn.

Champions are to be selected. Immediately the Xhel's most obvious choice steps forward as those around him step back in unison. About a third of the Xhel squad are already visibly taller than the tallest among the Imperial contingent, and their man - the one Captain Sarkamen mistook for a golem - is a head taller than even that. His gold-fringed cloak parts like a curtain as he strides forth, the glint of his brass-hilted heavysabre and gold-plated inlaid work of his three double-barreled pistols dancing in the sunlight upon the vast stage of his broad chest. The intricate brass spider on his lofty helm guards his brow from any projectile. His eyes glitter like starlight and pierce like steel, cheek pieces and golden brown mane framing a clean-shaven face, youthful but scarred.

He speaks with the voice of a drum of war: "Private First Class Golliar, of House Xjammat, of the Second Golden Tarantula Order. I am our champion."

The Imperial squad wear little brass, and if they were to flash what they had to the Xhel it would be universally be considered an indecent provocation. There is a minor skirmish among the ranks over who would have the pleasure of humiliating this pompous oaf.

Most of the men are skilled veterans and upstanding citizens. The latter part is why Captain Sarkamen, under the advice of Lord Ytoroghullatar and Sergeant Bathtis, regrettably rejects them all: they fight beautifully as a squad, in formation, but that knowledge would only blind them to the niceties of single combat.

Lieutenant Azagh is a certified stage trainer and choreographer for rapier, slaughtersword, quarterstaff and katana. Her mother trained under famed Kolodonese-Atharan knife fighter Billie Whiteboy herself. This will be her first actual duel. No, according to the captain, it will not.

Sergeant Bathtis is a certified master swordsman in the Imperial Army. He grew up in a large homestead with 5 brothers who had a reputation for brawling. In his reckless youth (which is to say, the week before they left on this mission) he pleaded guilty to a citation for excessive duelling and was fined. His typical combat role is to provide support in a skirmish by taking out or distracting high-priority targets. Thus far he is the best candidate.

Lieutenant Gitimurka can't fence his way out of a cardboard box, but as a medic if he only trusted people as far as he could throw them he would still be a very credulous person. He has also won numerous competitions as a pistol shooter. The only problem is that they don't know what enchantments or traps are on that armour - nor anything about Golliar's own shooting skills. Agent Tsuga also points out that he has a very obviously Thrazáni name and there's a non-zero chance Golliar might think it worth going berserk and guaranteeing a fatality. In any event, they need him in one piece to patch up whoever survives.

Captain Sarkamen is a certified master swordsman in the Imperial Army, equal in rank with Sergeant Bathtis. His specialty, however, is in hectic, chaotic skirmishes on the battlefield. He has never been in a duel, or even a fight against anything other than a fully justified military target as long as anyone can remember. While he would gladly fight Golliar as the active ranking officer, he is far more valuable commanding the team and fending off the Xhel rank-and-file during the chaos that will inevitably ensue after the duel.

Lord Ytoroghullatar leans on the halberd they had given him as a walking stick. He is slowly recovering, but clearly not a candidate. Not that he would have volunteered, for numerous reasons that if uttered now would would fall on adders' ears.

Agent Tsuga looks at her war shovel, standing some ways off to the side (albeit the side closer to the Xhel contingent), trying not to make any eye contac--

"...L.O.S. from the grass. Once Golliar is about to strike their champion dead, take out the orc shaman. That will be our cue."

The Xhel have all just assumed Sam didn't understand Common. She continues to avoid eye contact as she waits a few seconds after "orc shaman" before doing anything that might look like a reaction, then makes her way to the candidates' huddle.

Sarkamen looks mildly disappointed. "Azagh heard it too. We dropped a bug in the grass while they weren't looking. If that's the case, you might actually be safest in the ring. Probably better this way - I'm going to need all my men for what happens next. Take no unnecessary risks - with a braggart like that, the chance of a mutual kill goes up." It is only at this point that Sam becomes conscious that everyone, including herself, is rapidly code-switching through some combination of Atharan, Razvalin and Kolodonese - Azagh even sounds like she's avoiding historical Common loan words - and no one is interpreting for Lord Ytoroghullatar.

Agent Tsuga was sergeant in the Kolodonese special forces during the Western Rebellion of 3255 - the worst military defeat in the history of the Republic. She was one of the two main bruisers on her team, fighting dozens of men at a time behind enemy lines in numerous difficult situations. In more recent years she's held her own as a contractor on strange and perilous routes around the southern continent. She has lost most of the duels she's been in, none of which she started, mostly by conceding. Which makes her a slightly better fit than most of the men, worse than Sergeant Bathtis, and barely better than Captain Sarkamen.

What tips it in her favour, however, is this:

Private First Class Golliar is the elder son of a rich but only recently entitled nobleman who is doing a mandatory military service. He is well read in heroic romances and believes himself destined to imitate the great heroes he reads. He has fully bought into the "orc" myth respecting Kolodonese mercenaries and is itching for his first real fight against these evil monsters. He has never been defeated in combat, mostly thanks to good planning by his handlers (who currently appear to be absent). He loves big, hefty weapons and winning fights by outreaching his opponents. The scar on his cheek is from a duel against another Xhel noble over (rumour has it) some kind of sexual sadism he has exhibited around a woman he believed to be his inferior. (As a bit of background for Lord Ytoroghullatar, Sergeant Bathtis explains that the Xhel nobility nowadays do not have the same privileged status as they do with the Atharans, and military ranks have become much more meritocratic in the New Commonwealth. He patiently nods without pointing out that he did not catch any of the preceding discourse that led to that explanation.)

What does this have to do with her? She worked out this profile by eavesdropping on the Xhel rank and file while everyone else was busy trying to sell their own.

It is decided. "Let us unleash the orc shaman on this overcompensating whelp", Sergeant Bathis announces loudly in Common.


†*

The Xhel BATNA being much worse than the Imperials', they are the ones to issue the formal challenge. Which, of course, means the Empire chooses the weapons.

Numerous weapons of choice are brought out: broad rapiers, heavysabres, slaughterswords, spears, staves, pikes, bayoneted long rifles. The necromancer refuses all of them.

Captain Sarkamen grins as he holds up a pair of leaf-shaped blades, no longer than Golliar's hand from cross to point, more knife than sword. Sam nods.

The Xhel are visibly displeased. Golliar spits. "Tiny vermin weapons for tiny verminous savages that cannot understand steel, who do not know the honour of holding a line! If you must!"

Sam grins at Golliar, still covered in filth from last night and stinking of death, her one crooked lower eye tooth looking as tusk-like as she could manage in this light. "I kill you, soft man-flesh, and you die, today eat you, shark-boss fuck you in ass!" Even Captain Sarkamen looks less than impressed at that last bit. She bows a deep bow before him, grin intact.

Sergeant Bathtis's lips tighten. He looks Sam in the eye and shrugs his shoulders. Sam's grin loses its edge and she nods. "You weak tall men no good for man-flesh sword, give you cloak too!" Curiously enough, the Xhel do appear slightly mollified by this concession of adding a "real" duelling off-hand weapon. Thus it is settled: the weapons of the duel shall be each a smatchet and each duellist's own cloak, the former to be provided by the Imperial side.

Each fighter takes one smatchet from Captain Sarkamen. Golliar has first pick: he quickly discerns which one is not rigged to break on impact, and immediately upon taking the knife he feels a sense of full justification for its recommendation as a fighting weapon. He puts the thought away before it is corrupted into admiration, or worse, anyone sees his shame in having thought it: surely only a savage orc could design such a merciless tool of death! Better had they fought even with the sort of stick this incompetent oaf of a half-orc captain clearly has up his nether eye.

Tyr frowns in disappointment as the ignorant brute in front of him takes an eternity to figure out which knife to use. No one in the world will know just how many nights, how much grinding, hammering, measuring and re-measuring, heat-treating, weighing and re-weighing he has done to ensure that these duelling weapons would be exactly identical once the occasion arose.

Sam scowls as she takes the remaining smatchet: her opponent's façade is cracking fast, and it's clear from the way he handles this knife that he is far more familiar with it than he's pretending. Golliar catches her scowl: yes, indeed he did get the good one, however relative "good" must be.

Golliar takes off his cloak and whips it around his hand. Plenty enough padding to stop even a fine Xiniënarene broadsword, let alone a tiny orcine shiv.

Samaëlle takes off her cape and holds it in her hand. The horned pauldrons dangle uselessly from her fist. A child or drunk might imagine her using it as a crude flail. She twirls it and glares menacingly at Golliar.

The fighters step into the ring, a bare patch of dirt ten yards from centre to edge. The puffery deflates somewhat as each of them does a perfectly standard salute for their respective peoples.

"I would ask for any last words, but I would only expect filth and squalor out of a foul creature of your race!"

"Your effete gods will not save you, Southern scum! The birds will shit your carcass across this field!"

The deflation was but a brief interlude.

One of the Xhel men clangs a pot to signal the start of the fight. The orc charges forward with a guttural cry. Golliar is ready for her: with textbook precision he steps forward, feints with the cloak, feints left, slashes at just the right moment...

...and the cloak falls away to reveal her standing still before him, leaning backwards in a defensive guard, glaring at him warily. His strike fell a full foot short. The Xhel men jeer; mixed cries of encouragement, disappointment and consternation among the Imperials. Cowards, all of them.

She edges backwards. He steps forwards. She flicks her knife to his left. He denies its line with his cloak. She shuffles backwards again. He watches for a strike. She pauses a beat, then half-heartedly attempts to flail him with her pauldrons, a pathetic display that he easily smashes away with his knife. He steps forward and stops abruptly to avoid stepping into a sudden flurry of slashes. She stops and leans back before he can find an opening in her pattern. He leans in for a leg swipe, she steps back, she steps in again, leans in and returns, he parries, she recovers and shuffles back out of his range.

Good. He'll take the bait.

Suddenly she turns and runs and Golliar pursues. The Xhel cheer; murmuring among the Imperials.

Sam tosses her cape into the air, and in one practised motion grabs it and snaps the two horned pauldrons together. Her left hand and side are now covered by a long, oddly-shaped sword-breaker buckler with a short black cape flowing out of it like a matador's flag, billowing in front of her as she scuttles crab-like around her oversized enemy looking for a weak point.

"Come back here and fight, coward!" He lunges as she suddenly stops circling - just in time for his lunge to miss - and returns with a lunge of her own that he barely deflects with his cloak.

"You fall! Little bird peck your bones! Dung beetle make home in your skull!" She steps back away from his counter and steps back in again, almost scratching Golliar's knife arm. She steps to the side as he counters again, circling him in the opposite direction.

"You dare insult me? Am I but a hen-bear, that you bait with your vermin? I will crush this orc and all of you will rot in the Tower!" Her pauldrons barely deflect a surprisingly long lunge. He's learning; better hurry this up.

She dives to the side, rolls and scrambles towards his right flank, skidding to a halt as he covers the opening and nearly takes her head off with a wide swing. She starts cussing a blue streak in mixed Razvalin and Kolodonese; the Xhel are now screaming for blood. She scrambles back into the very edge of the ring, defensive stance now a cringe, as Golliar boldly steps forth...

It takes a moment for each onlooker's brain to process the exact sequence of what happens next, and eventually a consensus is silently reached. First, they heard the necromancer suddenly squeak in the most exaggeratedly feminine, almost childish voice anyone had heard in months, "Please don't hurt me!" Then there was an impassioned but totally ambiguous cry of either triumph or pain: it takes a moment longer to register that one had been slurring into the other. At some point in all this the necromancer has ended up on top of Golliar, and is now thrashing the prone private within an inch of his life with the butt of her smatchet. She lands several more blows, and P.F.C. Golliar lies still in a small puddle of blood in the middle of the ring, his smatchet tossed aside next to her cape.

It slowly dawns on Captain Sarkamen that Sam had been at least a foot and a half closer to Golliar than the larger man must have thought. If he survives this - which is entirely dependent on what he does next - even with the best doctors he may take a month or two to regain use of those arm tendons.

Sam has her knife to Golliar's throat. A crow croaks. Only two people can be heard: Sam breathing, and Golliar half sobbing, half wailing softly in pain.

A minute or a thousand years passes like this, then: "Are you satisfied?" Her Common diction and grammar are flawless. The comical orc accent is gone, replaced with a merely foreign one - the sort of book-learned northerner pronunciation that betrays ignorance of half the ordinary exceptions to the rules of Common orthography.

No response. She smacks him in the back of the head with her free hand. The blade digs in a bit. She raises her voice: "Are you satisfied?"

No response. She leans in and lowers her voice. "You will submit to me, or" - she lowers her voice further, a hiss, a gargle, a growl out of the grave: "you will serve me." The necromancer's voice is once more cool and normal: "Are you satisfied?"

A muffled yes comes out of the earth.

At this point it is noted by the parties that every other Xhel soldier has at least one Imperial musket, pistol or wand pointed at them.

"Renege on your promise," growls Captain Sarkamen, "and we will do worse to you than she was going to do to him."

Lieutenant Gitimurka holds up his doctor's bag for all to see as he slowly duck-walks under the guns into the middle of the ring.


†**

Sergeant Bathtis watches Golliar sulk off nursing his bandaged and slung arm and splinted and bandaged leg, gimping along on left foot and stick in left hand, his comrades silently making wide berth as he passes by them. He can't help but feel for the guy: must've been conditioned from childhood to think himself the biggest, most badass man of war ever born, and now on his first real fight ever he's taken for everything he's got and all but literally kicked out of the ring. Worse, it was by:

(a) a woman;
(b) someone shorter than him;
(c) someone much shorter than him;
(d) a civilian contractor;
(e) a caster, in a fight that did not involve any magic (though that trick with the pauldrons was pretty cool, he should get one of those himself); and
(f) one (1) of them "orcs" that their propaganda has their big pretty-boy heroes massacring by the dozen.

Maybe he's wishing now that Bathtis had just burned him to a crisp instead.

Can't feel too sorry though, he thinks as he helps Lord Ytoroghullatar back on his horse. Someone like Golliar would certainly forgive himself for being surprised by a dishonourable orc ambush of the likes seen here. It might even help him forgive himself for the defeat, or at least discount and excuse it. Xhel honour/shame has its own sort of pragmatism it'll never openly admit.

Everyone on both sides is all set to depart before Sergeant Eraxhmaga speaks. "You have won this round and met our challenge, however technically. We will spare you."

Captain Sarkamen gestures with his left hand behind him for silence, directly towards Sergeant Bathtis without even looking at him. Sergeant Bathtis closes his mouth. The duel is still their face-saving exit. Don't ruin it. Out loud, in Razvalin slow enough maybe for her to catch: "We are satisfied and honoured. Well met."

Awkward pause as each leader sees if the other is willing to ride in closer and shake hands. They do not.

In halting Razvalin, the Xhel sergeant decides it's at least worth a minor concession: "It is good that no one died today."

The dam bursts. Unduly happy that someone on the other side speaks something other than Common, Captain Sarkamen agrees wholeheartedly and begins explaining in oppressively tedious, bafflingly enthusiastic detail the full extent of the Imperial paperwork that would have been required of every squad member had Sam hit an artery and Golliar died in the ring.

Exit Xhel recon southwest. A distant observer might have thought that the Xhel forces had been defeated in battle and sent into a rout.

Exit Imperial patrol east. Total casualties: None. Losses: Some bandages, gauze, disinfectant and a couple splints; wandering ear recovered; hoplophage power crystals still plenty clear.

Gains: A lot more troubling questions on Lord Ytoroghullatar's mind.



*(Potentially) Relevant setting fluff*

Common romanization
x: Palatal fricative as in Chinese.
xh: Voiced x.
j: Glide as in German.

Communication nodes ("comms")
Imagine a smartphone. Now make it the size of a large PC tower, cover it with knobs and dials, but make it able to project touch screens into thin air without smoke. Now stick a big dish antenna on top and (unless you're a civilian in a developed area) make all data transfers peer-to-peer, requiring any two devices to have been previously wired together and "bonded" before they can communicate with each other remotely. Now make the data and interface magic so that the thing understands human language (and things like crazy Common orthography are not a huge burden for coders). That's a comm.

Dinosaurs
The southern continent has an awkward mix of mammals and dinosaurs. Unknown to the north, most northern terms for them are a figurative use of some previously known animal: shovel-beaked moose (a species of hadrosaur), hen-bear (a species of tyrannosaur). They tend to be significantly smaller than their Cretaceous cousins due to both hunting by humans and lower oxygen levels.

I know this

if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

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