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The Era of Ruin and Reunion Series

Enter the world of Hylla through the first two chapters of Book One: A Gathering of Blood and Magic. Should you wish to embark on the full journey, join the Patreon to read the weekly installments of the story, as well as gain access to more exclusive content!

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Chapter 1

He could hear the creatures in the forest now.

Captain Garridan’s breath plumed in the night air. His muscles tensed to ward off the unwanted temperature drop and strained not to give in to the shivering they longed to do.

Or perhaps that was fear.

Garridan’s two-dozen men slipped into position behind trees, treading cautiously on the foliage and grass. Those who could climb stealthily enough did so, nocking arrows while waiting for the enemy to arrive.

From the forefront of the force his men created, he crept as deep into the forest as he dared. Sparse new leaves clung to the skeletal branches of the trees that reached out like gnarled limbs and fingers. The leaves on the ground, dead remnants left after winter’s thaw, were crisp and dry. Every slight movement crackled in the air.

Garridan stood behind a large oak. One hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Past his own beating heart, he could hear the sound of the monsters coming closer.

The pale bodies of Erepos, eerie and ghost-like in the still of early morning, wove through the trees. Bare feet shuffled over the leaves and dirt. Bald heads gleamed in the fading moonlight. Garridan could not see their faces clearly due to the distance, but his memory filled in the blanks.

Murky eyes sat in sunken, pale faces; dirt ground into their skin covered them in patches like the discoloration of disease. The beings loped about, sometimes on all fours, their backs hunched as if in pain—but that was a ruse, like a bird feigning injury; they gained speed at an alarming rate.

He could hear their faint grunts. Wordless cries and shrieks were their only methods of communication. As far as Garridan—or anyone in his country, for that matter—knew, they possessed no language. And by no means were they skilled; apparently they lacked the higher brain functions to master any weapon. Once upon a time, they’d used only their hands and teeth, but in the past few decades, they’d picked up swords and knives. What they lacked in strength and skill, however, they more than made up for in speed and numbers. Even though they could almost match Garridan and his men in physical size, they were not difficult to kill.

A twig snapped mere yards away. Garridan stared hard ahead. The northern moon, Naula, was a thin slice low in the sky. Its wan light barely penetrated the gloomy forest floor.

Garridan waited.

Faint movement to his left caught his eye. He discerned the outline of a familiar figure leaning against a tree trunk. Darson, his lieutenant, appeared deceptively relaxed.

The captain tilted his head toward the noise.

Darson nodded in affirmation.

Garridan then raised his arm for the rest of the men to see. As he did so, the trilling call of a bird cut through the bitter air.

Arrows flew with synchronized hisses, slicing past bare tree limbs. Seconds later, shrieks began, destroying the hallowed silence of the forest as the Erepos broke into a run.

Garridan drew his sword and stepped out of his refuge.

A pale, white form rushed at him, its gaping maw screeching as its feet pounded into the dirt. Garridan thrust his sword and buried it deep into the Erepo’s shoulder, and then pulled it out swiftly as the monster screamed in pain. He then swept the blade in a smooth, wide arc toward the creature’s neck. The head thudded to the ground. The body collapsed after a moment of unsettling suspension.

His sword met the curved blade of another Erepo with a reverberating clang that sent shock waves up his arm. The Erepo didn’t parry so much as swing wildly for a few seconds while snarling at Garridan with rotted, blackened teeth. Disgusted, the captain wasted no time in running him through, feeling his sword meet resistance in flesh.

He slashed the throat of another foe, and warm liquid sprayed his face. Garridan kicked the pale body away and hastily wiped his hand over the dark splatters, careful not to smear any of it near his lips.

Something heavy pounded in the dirt behind him. He whirled.

A blade sunk into his right shoulder.

Garridan’s breath seized. He didn’t react as quickly as the Erepo, who immediately abandoned the weapon and leapt on him. Its momentum threw the warrior to the ground. For a sickening few seconds he was falling, with the weight of the strangely warm, sinewy body on top of him. Then the ground rushed up and caught him in a rough, painful embrace.

The Erepo clung to the captain like a spider, its fingers digging into his sides. It shrieked in his face, spraying him with spittle. Garridan’s stomach rolled with nausea and bone-deep fear as he brought his hand up to the Erepo’s head, clutching its skull and forcing it away from him. Scrambling, it grabbed Garridan’s hair, fighting for control.

With his free hand, the captain blindly searched the ground for his sword, a weapon, anything. His fingers felt cool metal as the Erepo struggled and writhed on top of him. Garridan’s hand closed around the hilt of his own sword. He brought it up swiftly, slamming it into the monster’s skull with as much force as he could muster.

Bone gave a satisfying crack. As quickly as it had launched itself onto him, the Erepo fell off. Garridan stumbled to his feet, grimacing as a slight rotation of his right shoulder sent shooting pain through the torn muscle. He took in the surrounding area, making note of a soldier fighting one last Erepo. When it was dead, silence reigned once more save for the harsh breathing of his men.

“Everyone all right?” he called. Positive responses greeted him from more than a dozen voices, but Garridan was not satisfied until he called every name under his command and received an individual response.

As a precaution, he sent one of his men to scout further to ensure there would be no other unwanted visitors.

“Find as many bodies as you can and drag them to the plains,” Garridan ordered. “We’ll do a sweep at sunrise for any we missed.”

The work was not long, although his shoulder screamed with pain by the time all the bodies were collected. Dawn scrubbed the air clean of the sooty gray leftover from the night, and visibility improved. The men trudged back to their original campsite. Garridan looked into the faces of tired men. Men who just wanted to go home.

“Break camp soon, Captain?” a soldier named Averi asked.

Garridan nodded. “After inspection. The horses?”

“Spooked, but all accounted for, sir.”

Good. Tethering the horses a few yards north of camp proved to be a blessing, he thought. As his soldiers attended wounds and cleaned weapons, a wave of exhaustion gripped his bones with a great, heavy pull. He didn’t bother to push the feeling aside—he let it take him to the ground. He sat on the cold dirt and took a deep breath; the movement jarred his shoulder wound. Gritting his teeth, Garridan reached with his good arm and used his fingers and teeth to tear the bloody fabric of his shirt away from the pulsing injury.

“You ever intend to get that looked at, Captain?”

Garridan glanced up as Darson crouched down.

“When Thyme has a moment.”

The lieutenant pointed at the gash, visibly wary of touching it. “You’re bleeding all over your shirt. And you have blood on your face.”

“It can wait until he’s seen to the others.”

Darson sighed, dug up a rag from his pocket, and threw it at Garridan to wipe off his face. He called for Thyme, the group’s healer.

“In a moment!” the man called in a hoarse voice that was first sharp and cutting before the last syllable disappeared into nothing. “I got two dozen a’ you to look over, get in line!”

Darson lifted up his hands and gave Garridan an affronted look.

“He’s ready to retire,” Garridan said, almost apologetically.

“Oh, I had no idea. He only reminds us every day.”

The groused mutterings of a healer who’d stayed too long in the field wafted on the breeze to the two men. Garridan took his focus off the pain that radiated from his neck down into his arm and shifted it to the aging healer’s verbal discontent. Thyme commandeered the soldiers like a stern, impatient father would deal with young, petulant boys. Shirts came off; wounds were prodded and inspected to satisfaction. It would be a shame to lose such a talented, experienced man. One of these days, though, the old man would make good on his daily threats of retirement.

“. . . four hours from home, creeping up like vultures. Don’t have the decency to wait till morning, nasty little—oh no, must have a snack. Strip down, son, quick now.”

Darson gestured to Garridan. “He’s the lame one, not me.”

“You’re standing right in front of me, boy. I need to get you out of the way, too. Faster you go, sooner I can see the cap’n.”

Darson rolled his eyes at the disgruntled healer and obediently pulled off his shirt.

“Report?” Garridan asked Thyme.

The old man sniffed. “Lacerations, knocks, bruises. Nothing fatal. Foster wrecked his knee over a tree log and one of their disease-ridden blades. He’ll be needing the infirmary to nip off an infection.” The old man sniffed. “Clumsy boy. Averi, too—tore his back all to hell. Goddamn trees as deadly as Erepos to you lot.”

“Now that’s not fair,” Darson argued. “It’s been a long tour. Am I finished?”

Thyme waved his clearance. “Let’s have a look at you, Captain. Are we dealing with anything serious?”

“I’m actually not sure, sir.”

Thyme knelt down, knees cracking. Hair resembling a hawk’s crown of feathers bobbed softly with the movement. Eyes squinted at the drying blood and torn skin.

“Shirt off.”

With a baring of teeth, Garridan carefully removed his shirt and assessed the damage right along with the healer.

Darson hissed in a breath, and Thyme muttered a few choice expletives at the jagged, six-inch gash in Garridan’s right shoulder. The skin around it flushed an angry red. Garridan couldn’t see any exposed muscle, but the light was poor; blood flowed freely, and it throbbed like a mouthful of infected teeth.

“Boy, I don’t have the supplies this kind of mess needs. I’ll clean and bandage it, but you get yourself to the infirmary the minute we get home. You’ll be needing stitches. Two months, I ain’t had to stitch nothin’ bigger than a cut—hours from home, I got three of you.”

The captain winced and ground his teeth as Thyme’s fingers probed the bloody wound and then smothered the injury with a mixture of egg yolk, rose, and pine oil to reduce the inflammation. The smell overwhelmed his nose.

“Hurt like hell for a few weeks,” the old man continued to mutter. “Won’t be able to use it much. Damned lucky you weren’t bit.” He wrapped Garridan’s shoulder with a clean bandage and gave him a drought for pain that tasted like oil and rotten fruit.

Garridan felt the drought take effect moments after his scout came back and reported no other signs of Erepos. The fierce pain dulled to a low, rumbling ache, and his right arm was no longer stiff. The air continued to lighten, heralding warmer temperatures, as the sun eased its way up to break on the horizon.

As the sunrise saturated the sky with dazzling color, Garridan and his men performed one last sweep. No bodies were left behind in the forest for other scavengers to find. In an empty field of frost-tinged grass, four-dozen Erepo carcasses were piled atop one another in a mound of dirty, pale limbs, torsos, and ruined heads.

With the horses packed and the wounded looked after, the men mounted their steeds for the last stretch home. Garridan sent the majority of the troops ahead as Averi prepared to light the pile, knowing the wind would blow the smell of burning, diseased flesh in their direction.

“I haven’t seen a group that big in months. A nice surprise for our productive tour,” Darson remarked sarcastically as he helped ignite the heap.

“The king won’t be too happy,” Averi agreed. He grimaced and cursed after chucking a merrily burning branch deep into the bodies, and then he stretched his back.

Garridan raised an eyebrow at the soldier as smoke began to rise. “How’s your back?”

“Colorful and sore,” Averi explained cheerfully, gesturing to his lower back. “Monster knocked me right on a tree branch. We danced for a bit, and then I beheaded him. Anyway. Worry not, Cap. The mission wasn’t a complete loss. A lot more alive than dead, just … not the person the king sent us for.”

Darson snorted. “Not that anyone wanted that sack of—”

“Dar,” Garridan sighed. “At the very least, gentlemen, this particular group won’t be bothering the capitol. Let’s be done here.”

The mound began to blaze.

The men ignored the bright yellow bonfire in favor of the brush strokes of purple and pink that streaked the sky and illuminated the presence of the large planet Parna and its thin, delicate rings.

They headed north. It was time to go home.

Chapter 2

The city of Laurus rose from the flat plains in walls, spires, and towers, a patchwork of concrete, fieldstone, and limestone. It was a lone bright spot in a calm sea of scruff grass and farmland. Arcing around the farmland, half a mile out from the city walls, stood an unfinished barrier, a slow work in progress stalled time and again from lack of raw materials. From a distance the barrier looked abandoned, a remnant of a much larger city halved in size.

The city gleamed gloriously in late springs past. This early morning, as clouds crept in to cover the sun, Laurus’s beauty was dimmed but not lost. The brilliant blue flags fluttering in the breeze atop the ramparts were still warm and welcoming for the soldiers coming home. The pale gray clouds and grass not yet touched with the sustenance of spring rains washed out the pale limestone, giving it a dingy white cast that briefly, and uncomfortably, reminded Garridan of the pallid flesh of Erepos.

He couldn’t shake the troubling comparison as the heavy gates opened to let in the troops. No one awaited them. The king’s royal unit did not operate on predictable time schedules, and none of his men’s loved ones would know of their return.

The long, narrow courtyard Garridan and his men rode into was sparsely populated, as the city folk rarely bothered loitering near the front gates unless it involved food replenishment. Some twenty years ago, the decorative pools of the capitol’s courtyard underwent a conversion to feed the growing population of the haven city. Now, the green waters of the pretty stone pools housed trout, perch, and cod. Water chestnut and watercress floated along the edges. Each pool belonged to a specific neighborhood—Garridan’s own area of dwelling possessed a pool in the far left corner—and individuals designated by the king’s cabinet regulated the supply of fish and vegetation to ensure fair distribution. He never understood why those pools gave him such comfort, but they never failed to settle him when he watched the calm waters ripple with the life teeming underneath.

 

Garridan coaxed his mare to stand in front of the group of gathered men. “Gentlemen, this was a successful tour,” he said. “Despite running into circumstances out of our control, we still had the opportunity to assist two towns in need; we ensured their safety and aided their ability to continue trading and feeding their families. I’m proud of the way each and every one of you conducted yourselves, and deeply pleased that we are all home healthy and uninfected. Enjoy your leave.”

The men cheered. The captain heard Darson extend an open invitation to celebrate at a tavern in the northeast corner of the city. As the men began to leave and make their way down the cobblestone streets that branched out to different parts of the city, two young women seated on the concrete lip of a nearby pool rose, beaming in the direction of lingering soldiers.

Darson leaned in Garridan’s direction from his horse. “Enjoy telling the king that his package died before we could get to him. Ladies!” He dismounted cheerfully, accepting a hug from one of the maidens. “What a happy coincidence to see you here.”

“Do not flatter yourself,” the dark-haired young woman laughed, lowering her pail of water chestnuts and brushing a kiss across Darson’s cheek. “It was our turn to gather fresh stock for the market.”

“Don’t crush my hopes that you waited here every day until my return.”

“Consider them crushed, Lieutenant.”

Darson looked up at Garridan. “Do you see the welcome I get?”

“Better than none at all,” Garridan answered with a half smile.

“We need to find the captain a lady friend,” Darson told the young women. “Not having one to welcome him back makes him ornery.” The moment he finished his sentence, the soldier realized what he had said. Darson’s eyes widened, and contrition filled them. “I meant that entirely in jest.”

“I know.” The captain smiled tightly, unable to quell a dull ache drummed up from the harmless teasing. The memory of a young woman he remembered all too well flashed across his mind. Fortunately, the passage of time had made it easier to push her back into the recesses of his mind. The longing, however, was not so easily banished. He forced a light, equally teasing tone. “You should escort these ladies to the market and then go bother your poor mother. I’m sure she’s dying to have her agitating son back from the fields.”

“She’ll want a visit from her insufferable pretend son, too.” Looking thoroughly unhappy with himself, Darson appeared to swallow his apology, and patted the flank of Garridan’s horse. “Coming out later?”

“Not with this shoulder.”

The lieutenant winced. “I can stop by and play nursemaid.”

“You’re not pretty enough for me to enjoy that.”

The maidens laughed, and Darson ruefully raked back his hair. “Get that looked at; I’ll see you later.”

Garridan nodded and pushed his heels into the mare’s side, wordlessly acknowledging the continued apology coming from his friend’s expression and body language. His shoulder was stiff, but the pain draught made the discomfort bearable. He headed for the main road, which snaked through the heart of Laurus like a wide river with streams and rivulets of cobblestone branching off throughout the city, only to slow to a halt as a man hailed him from the courtyard.

Garridan’s guard rose as Radley, the captain of Laurus’s home unit, moved to block his path.

“Welcome back,” Radley said. “On time, I see.”

“Thank you.”

“I happened to notice the lack of a certain council member.”

Garridan fought the urge to sigh. “I noticed as well. Dead long before our arrival to Espen.”

Radley grimaced. “Damn.”

In that, we are in full agreement, Garridan thought. “Did Callum’s troops return from the south?”

“Yesterday afternoon. Four soldiers dead. Two turned. Three farms found burned, their families massacred.”

Damn. “I see.”

“The Marshal instructed me to inform you he will debrief you this afternoon. The king wishes an immediate audience. You’ll find him in his study.”

Well. The stitches will have to wait. Nodding, Garridan bid Radley farewell.

He headed toward the large wooden stables not far from the gates to the king’s castle. Garridan barely paid heed to the bustle of the city market to his left, which opened from the main road into a large stone square. Wooden stalls stood in rough rows. Men and women threaded among them, trading with vendors.

He’d known these streets and that market, the largest in the city, most of his life. From the stories his parents and grandfather used to tell him, the commotion he was familiar with could not compare to the days of the previous generation’s youth, when vendors from other cities came to trade.

Reports from other towns and cities were scarce, as Garridan and his men had repeatedly discovered during their excursions through Aliquis. Most notably concerning the town of Espen and a specific task bestowed upon them by the king.

Which had ended in failure.

It was this very lack of information that set so many on edge. Unease continually rippled through the masses at the prospect of what the next week would bring, or what sort of grim news the next military official would deliver. The people here were still largely sheltered from the horrors that lay beyond the white stone, but they were not ignorant of it.

The smell of sweet hay, horse, and manure accosted Garridan’s nose and brought him back to the present as he entered the huge wooden stables. A few stable boys groomed two horses out in the aisle.

“Need help, Cap’n?” one of the boys called.

“Could you take her for me, son?”

The boy smiled, dark eyes flashing to the captain’s mare. “Yes, sir.”

Garridan dismounted, patted the horse’s flank, and handed the reigns over. He slid a hand into his pocket and, dismayed, realized he did not have any silver. He always slipped the stable help a few. Garridan vowed to remedy that later.

Weariness settled in as he walked, a reminder of the sleep he didn’t get the previous night. He wasn’t pleased at the lack of time to clean up before having an audience with the king, and he wiped some of the grime off his hands onto his pants. The hell with it. The king wanted him now; he would have to deal with the filth.

The king’s castle was an imposing stone and wooden structure more functional than attractive. Garridan walked past the guard stationed at the large wooden doors, nodding at the guard’s salute, and strode through the nearly empty grand hall. Servants wiped down the scarred surfaces of the meal tables in the southern section of the great room; more carried buckets of water and linens down the hallways.

When Garridan reached the study, he knocked softly.

A muffled “Enter” came through. Garridan let himself in, closing the door behind him.

Open bay windows reaching the room’s vaulted ceilings let in the late morning light. Golden tassels bound thick, velvet drapes to each side, luxuriant and fine to the casual observer, if one didn’t inspect too closely and find ragged ends and frayed threads. Shelves bearing books, small bronze statues, and carved wooden boxes lined every wall; the large tomes and small volumes lent a musty, antiquated smell to the room. A fire crackled in the fireplace carved into the center of the right wall.

The king of Aliquis stood before the fire.

Hair white with age swept back from an impressive, regal face, touching the collar of his red tunic. The gray eyes studying Garridan were still sharp and wise, if a little tired. “Welcome back, Captain.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Garridan made a sweeping bow, which proved to be a terrible idea. The pain that lanced through his shoulder stunned him. He took a deep breath as the king bid him to wait. The monarch approached a wide, polished wooden desk and retrieved a bottle of wine and two glasses.

While Garridan waited, he looked around. A newer rug, swirled with grey and green, soft and thick enough to sleep on, spanned the room, and reminded Garridan of how dirty his boots were. He was positive he’d tracked in more dirt than this room had ever seen.

He was also positively not looking forward to informing his liege of the demise of his councilman. The two-month tour for the king’s private unit included many tasks and assignments carried out successfully, but Garridan wasn’t able to accomplish the retrieval of the councilman.

These things happen, he reminded himself. Mortality rates were high. He wasn’t particularly bothered by the death itself—he hardly knew the man beyond his somewhat unsavory reputation—but the king had been mysteriously adamant on Mathias’s presence in the capitol.

King Edric returned holding the two glasses of red wine. Garridan took the offered glass and murmured his thanks.

“Have a seat, Captain.”

Garridan followed him to two high-back chairs waiting on either side of a table of rich dark wood. He sank gratefully into the deep golden cushion. Edric sat, and they both paused to drink deeply. A low hum of appreciation announced the captain’s pleasure at the full-bodied taste of a no-doubt expensive, increasingly rare wine.

When Edric finished, he pointed one ringed finger at Garridan. “You are quite filthy.”

Garridan ran his tongue over his teeth to savor the lingering aftertaste of plum and chocolate. “When am I not?”

“Indeed. Report? How fare Pithe and Espen?”

Garridan briefly summed up his unit’s activity over the course of their absence, including the morning’s confrontation. Pithe was a town too close to the border for anyone’s comfort, long left to the Erepos by most citizens except a stout few. Garridan’s unit had overseen a full evacuation of those remaining to the nearest town. Another town’s trade routes with a neighboring village had become compromised, and they assisted with a reroute, erecting new barriers for safe cargo transportation. The manual labor alone took weeks. Espen, on the other hand …

Edric didn’t give him a chance to ease into it. “Mathias has passed, hasn’t he?”

Garridan mentally sighed. “Yes.”

“On the return home?”

“No. When we reached Espen, his family informed us Mathias had died the week previous. An infection of some kind. I am sincerely sorry, Your Majesty. Had I thought to travel to Espen beforehand, we might have been able to rush him here for treatment.”

Edric shook his head, weariness aging his features. “And he probably would have died regardless. Mathias has not been in good health for ages. It is a tragedy, and playing at ‘what if’ will not solve anything. We will carry on without him. I will contact his family and send condolences.”

“Are there any other council members you require in his stead, for whatever purpose?” Garridan kept the question light, fishing a little for the reasoning behind the request for the outlying councilman. He never outright questioned Edric’s assignments for them—there was never a reason to—but curiosity got the better of him.

“Not at this time, Captain. I could use an ear, however.”

“Of course.”

“The attack this morning … quite close to our city. Closer than they have come in some time. And a great deal of them.”

“It was a rather large group, and they are edging closer to the capitol, yes. It is slightly troublesome.”

The king chuckled humorlessly. He looked away from Garridan and out the window for a long moment. “Slightly troublesome. I try not to forget how much death you see daily. How commonplace it is for you. How it should not be, but there it is. It is how we have lived since before my time, but we are ever searching for better ways to … get around it.

“Their boldness, I suppose you should call it, worries me. It is a constant worry. I have been thinking heavily on this matter for the past few months. No.” A brief, sad smile touched his lips. “Years. Since I became king. How can our people continue to lead lives as normal as possible, as structured as we can give them? How can we keep them safe, and provide for them?”

Garridan didn’t answer. The king rarely laid his true thoughts bare. After years in his service, Garridan was well versed in reading the burdens and frustrations between the lines on his monarch’s face.

How difficult it must be to represent the hope for a nation held captive by an evil no one understood.

“Garridan, I would like to hear your thoughts on how to remedy this growing predicament of ours, and perhaps I will share with you some of mine.”

The captain straightened in his chair. He went to lean his elbows on the table, and then his shoulder reminded him what a poor decision that was. He improvised by leaning his arms against the edge of the table to steeple his fingers.

“Some of the larger cities are adjusting well enough to becoming self-sustaining,” Garridan said slowly. “Protecting what crops they can grow, maintaining sanitation. Water access is a challenge, since the Erepos make it so difficult to travel far from the safety of city walls. Population control in larger cities is another thing, but continuing to encourage smaller towns to develop their own methods of protecting their borders has helped. The citizens are still vulnerable. There are not enough willing to receive proper training to defend themselves, and there are not enough of us to help them do so. We’re stretched thin as it is.”

Garridan did not mention that he had to continue to lead soldiers into the increasingly hostile territory of their own lands. Throughout his military career, he’d watched countless men die not because of poor strategy, but because of being overwhelmed. No one envied the soldiers in Aliquis; the position was dangerous, soul crushing, and largely thankless. Rewards, other than decent pay, came rarely, and a violent death was almost always guaranteed. Those who chose the life either possessed a streak of audacity the size of a small country or had personal reasons for joining.

Garridan shook his head in frustration before continuing. “And for every Erepo we kill, ten more take its place. The spread of their infection shows no sign of slowing.”

The captain looked into his king’s eyes and saw Porphys reflected back at him. Five months ago, the southeastern border town had been nothing but an assignment for the eastern unit—a unit the king paid particularly close attention to from the moment his grandson joined its ranks.

The compassion of one soldier for an abandoned child had been the town’s demise. The ensuing forty-eight hours had been … horrifying.

“We will not let self-preservation supersede our humanity,” Edric said abruptly. “I have made my position clear on the matter.”

Garridan noted the waver of emotion in his king’s voice. He conceded with a nod. “I understand.”

“Porphys was an avoidable catastrophe.”

Garridan nodded once more, internally wincing. Edric’s tone once again allowed no room for comment or argument. Garridan held his own beliefs about how it could have been handled, but he held his tongue. It was difficult to argue damage control methods to a king who deeply personalized such an awful incident.

The death of a grandson would do that to any grandparent.

The words nearly stuck in Garridan’s throat. “I agree.” Defending the choices of his brothers-in-arms would only anger a king who already did his best to maintain order, save lives, and preserve the highest quality of life for the people of Aliquis.

“Fortifying the border and river towns has been a priority simply because of their location,” Garridan said, continuing in the same light tone while Edric’s eyes still reflected the grievous matter. “A priority progressively becoming harder to keep. The more ground we lose, the further we are from Virtus and Ferox, which hurts any chances of mutual assistance in the future, if it ever becomes feasible. Ferox is still in shambles.”

The king had reached out to Virtus and Ferox before, but both neighboring kingdoms—the only other inhabited realms on Hylla they could turn to—had their own problems outside of Erepos. Garridan had never been to Ferox despite its close proximity to Aliquis. He knew the kingdom held great architectural wonders and art from the multitude of cultures it absorbed from its long history of conquering territories and smaller countries, but its deterioration had begun long before his birth. Those wonders had no doubt fallen into disrepair once Ferox began to crumble from its own size and unstable government. They had received no news of the massive kingdom for years; he could vividly imagine the kind of hellhole it would be now.

Virtus enjoyed order somewhat similar to Aliquis—but endured problems that Garridan did not want his people to inherit; illness outbreaks and food shortages among them. “Virtus has never had a substantial military force, and there is the misfortune of their ailing king.” Along with a belief system that chose to look at the spread of Erepos as heavenly retribution; for what, Garridan did not know. The overarching religion in Virtus was far older than the primary religion in Aliquis, which branched off almost a thousand years prior to remove the shackles of a harsh, restrictive, and archaic belief system.

“The king’s son is shouldering much of that burden,” Edric agreed. “Prince Hadrian has much to contend with as of late, and they haven’t the resources to give.”

“Neither do we,” Garridan pointed out.

“No. We cannot afford to lose much more farmland to fire or languish.” The king leaned back and rubbed his forehead wearily. Worry lines cut in between his brows and around his mouth.

Garridan usually didn’t allow himself to think about every obstacle humankind faced. Forcing it into the light was difficult.

“As it stands now, and as I said before …” Garridan hated even saying it. It was redundant, and obvious, but there was no other way to face the situation. “We are losing territory to Erepos; we are shrinking. And they are leaving more victims alive instead of feeding on them.” Animals killed and ate their food; they did not have the foresight to leave their victims intact enough to increase their numbers. The newer development itched the inside of Garridan’s mind relentlessly; he could not reconcile a behavior that spoke of intelligence with the habits of the Erepos.

Intelligence and organization. Who was responsible for the change? Were they evolving? Or did they have help?

“I would be more than willing to hear your thoughts,” Garridan admitted. “Because I have exhausted every resource I know.”

“There is more available to us than you are aware of,” the king replied cryptically. “Since …” The unspoken recall of Porphys’s demise hung in the air. Edric cleared his throat. “I have given it serious thought over the past six months. Struggled with it for years. My father and his father never followed through with this idea. But as of late, I feel it is time to truly exhaust, as you say, every viable resource at our disposal, conventional or not.”

Edric hesitated, his lips a thin line as he stared pensively at his half-full glass of wine. His fingers traced the rim and then stroked the table. Abruptly he stood, grasping the glass, and began to pace slowly as he visibly struggled to speak his mind.

Garridan watched him curiously.

“I have reigned for thirty years,” the man said quietly. “In that time we have lost countless towns. Thousands dead. Infected. The remaining cities are crowded. My people run the risk of going hungry. Laurus has been blessed; the people here, they are fortunate, and sheltered from the way some have to live elsewhere. The inequality tears at me. I am failing them.”

Garridan wanted to find the words capable of soothing the king’s anguish. But with his own throat tight, his fingers interlaced in his lap, he couldn’t find them. There was no silver lining here. And he didn’t know where his king would find it.

“It is not entirely wise. But it is a chance I am unwilling to set aside if it has any hope of helping us. I am going to ask for outside aid.”

Garridan’s head tilted to the side. Surely, that was not the answer. They had already discussed the neighboring kingdoms.

Edric saw the confusion on Garridan’s face. “Not Ferox or Virtus.”

“Perhaps a more direct response would aid this discussion, so I may provide the input you seek,” Garridan said somewhat dryly.

 

The corners of Edric’s mouth ticked up in a faint smile. “Very well. I am going to approach the fae.”

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