Iluchus leapt to her feet, enraged when she heard the news. Toned muscles bulged beneath her armor as she flexed and clenched her jaw.

“What do you mean ‘Valis is gone?’”

The scout doubled over with exhaustion. With his hands on his knees he chugged from the water skin Iluchus offered him. Finally, the runner wiped his mouth. “Well, not gone. I mean, it is still there, but the vagha were wiped out. The palisades and the main gate appear broken; only a small contingent of morehl occupy it.”

The amazon queen roared and grabbed her javelin. “Then we must take it back before it is reinforced.”

Men and women in her court, warriors all, howled their approval.

One man called out, “They call the Emperor’s general Shedakor, the morehl who never misses.”

Laughing him down, a few others heckled him about his apparent fear.

“It’s not for fear that I say this,” he defended. “I am thrilled that it shall be our javelins that kill him in battle.”

A cheer went up.

An old man rose from his seat near the ceremonial chair that marked Iluchus’s seat of power. He cleared his throat and silenced the room with a mere gesture. Visech was one of the few remaining First Men, part of the original human race dropped fully formed onto Esfah by the Father-God Tarvenehl seventy-five years prior. His wisdom rarely went unheeded.

All eyes turned to Visech as he spoke; even Iluchus’s face softened. “It may appear to be sparsely defended, but appearances are not always what they seem. The lava elves are cruel and calculating—they may have burned out the dwarves, but they would not leave unguarded such a defensible foothold in their expanding kingdom. I would suspect a trap.”

“What do you advise, Visech?”

“Beware low hanging fruit on montimbanco trees,” he said. Nods circulated the royal tent. Aside from a tiny difference in their leaves, montimbanco trees looked almost identical to their hullifruit cousin. The same in every respect, the imposter’s fruit was poisonous enough to kill a man within an hour.

Iluchus tightened her fingers around the haft of her weapon. “Then we will act as we do when we find a montimbanco sapling: we shall chop it down.” She locked eyes with her adviser and added, “But wisely… patiently and in due time.”

Sshkkryyahr stood a little taller as Charbann entered her tent. Shedakor took a half step closer to his consort and flashed a possessive look at the former member of Emperor’s praetorian guard. The drider and her morehl companions had returned to their army along with what reinforcements could be spared without weakening the Obsidian Grotto’s defense force.

“I have assembled a team for you, Charbann,” Sshkkryyahr said.

The newcomer bowed. “What is my mission?”

“I need you to locate an old friend. You and your team of scouts should travel south east, into the Nhur-Ghale Forest. Torl and his people live between the Narcea River and Bent Morass. You must be quick to find him—plans are already in motion and the distance is great.”

Charbann nodded.

Shedakor relaxed somewhat at the notion of his potential rival leaving for some foreign land.

Sshkkryyahr explained, “Torl is a rakshasa of the Black Forest, a blighted holdout on the edge of the troglands. His home is in the canopy of a massive wood said to have sprouted from the corrupted seeds of the Great Tree,” her inflection indicated the prophecy given when Death entered the world.  “This tree bloomed from a corrupted seed. A fallen child—one like us, a product of both Nature and Death.”

Charbann asked, “I thought the Black Forest was a cult?”

“It is,” Sshkkryyahr replied. “It is a people and not only a place. Now go. Don’t return without Torl. Tell him the drider needs him and he will profit mightily from the journey.”

Iluchus collapsed her spyglass and tossed it into the pouch hanging at the front of her chariot. She stepped out of the carriage and onto the ground to grab a fist full of soil.

The amazon queen smelled the earthy tones and grinned. It was perfect: not so moist that the wheels would sink and not so dry that her soldiers would send up dust billows. Neither scenario would have created significant problems, but could necessitate that her plan of attack change.

She glanced up to Visech who rode in her armored chariot. He nodded measuredly at her assessment. “This should be a swift and easy kill, provided they do not see us coming?”

Iluchus bobbed her head. “Just like last time.”

Using hand signs she communicated to her troops and then stepped back onto the deck of her vehicle. With a crack of the reins her chariot raced ahead towards the morehl patrol in the distance.

Iluchus’s warriors fell in behind her, rolling into rank and creating a massive wedge of warriors in attack formation. Armored chariots stacked two deep and shaped like migrating birds created a shield wall that protected the javelin wielding footmen who sprinted behind them.

The lava elves spotted the queen in the distance and formed up against her, setting a rigid defense. With their smaller numbers, the morehl party was not likely to win, but could at least chisel down the attackers and make them pay for venturing into the lava elves’ newly acquired lands.

As the humans closed in, and before reaching javelin or musket range, new thundering hooves boomed with sudden loudness. Iluchus grinned.

Two teams of amazon chargers burst out of the flanks and criss-crossed through the lava elf forces, tearing them up from the weak side, striking where they had set no shields. Cast into panic and disarray, the elves broke formation as some tried to find targets on either flank and some tried to reset their defenses against them—the chargers did not return.

Iluchus and her soldiers reached a fatal range and released their javelins. Piercing death rained down and wiped out the scattered morehl.

The warrior queen sped ahead and rode through the carnage. Her wheels dragged thin tracks of smoking morehl blood through the heather.

Visech smiled, obviously feeling as spry as any of the young fighters who followed the warrior queen. “That’s the third conflict in a row that the enemy has failed to inflict a casualty,” he said approvingly.

“I had a good teacher,” she winked at him. “You know there is more than one way to destroy a montimbanco tree.”

The old man raised a bushy eyebrow.

Iluchus answered the unspoken question. “When you can’t strike the root, do it one branch at a time.”

He grinned at his protege and the queen exited her chariot with a pair of flags. She stood atop a heap of enemy bodies and waved them, knowing her people watched for the signal. Others would relay the message about their next destination.

The amazons were at war—and staying mobile kept them one step ahead of the enemy.