“Ahh, they have finally arrived,” Sshkkryyahr said, reacting to the hubbub outside. She skittered through the tent flaps and left Shedakor to hurry after her.

Torl and his companions entered the camp. They hovered a few hand-spans above the ground, riding upon the flying carpets they’d constructed during their time in obscurity in the Black Forest community: a cloister of death-worshiping arcanists who lived in and on the wicked tree planted deep within the Nhur-Ghale.

Behind Torl and his mixed company of morehl and trog cultists, an additional carpet carried Charbann and his scouts. Most of them looked relieved to be back among their own kind and only a few from that party had failed to return. Charbann stepped off of his floating rug, an ornate tapestry depicting a magic seed sprouting into the great Blight Tree that housed the magi of Nhur-Ghale.

Sshkkryyahr tilted her head towards Charbann as he arrived. She did not disguise the glimmer in her eye and let her eyes swing from looking at the impressive weapon hanging at his hip to his physique—especially the region between his hips. “It is good to see you return successfully.”

He nodded, but added, “I’ll be glad to return to the comforts of the Grotto as soon as possible.”

Shedakor gritted his teeth at the display.

“Then let’s win this war,” the drider said playfully. “Torl. My people have brought you up to speed on what we need from you?”

Shedakor cast an askew look in her direction. “Our people,” he muttered too quietly to be heard as Sshkkryyahr led the way back to their tent. He, Torl, and Charbann followed her lead.

Torl nodded his felinoid head, showing off his tusk-like incisors. Few morehl from the Obsidian Grotto had ever seen a rakshasa. He looked like a cross between a human and a jungle cat. Something about him reeked of fire and death magic—like some kind of powerful aura.

“You want us to bolster your troops with magic,” he stated as they arrived at the map where tokens marked the arranged troops upon the plains.

“Yes,” Sshkkryyahr said. “For this, you will be given the vagha stronghold of Valis which we claimed. I know you’ve wanted to escape the stink of the troglands for a while now.”

Torl nodded slowly. “It is a different kind of stink—but the dry would improve my pelt. Besides, the Blight Tree will soon be dead.”

Sshkkryyahr shot him a concerned look.

“Every year the peat from Bent Morass grows. It consumes any plant life not accustomed to the bog. Within two decades it will have reached the roots of our home; we must seek another before then. The Black Forest agrees to your terms.”

The drider smiled and stabbed a finger into the map. She dropped a few new, white tiles onto the board. “This is Potshari, home of the amazon shamans. Queen Iluchus is most recently reported to have visited with her entire caravan. Their children and those unfit for battle will remain in the adobe city.”

Sshkkryyahr snatched a few of the smaller, black pawns off of the table and replaced them with white ones. One had a crown drawn on it with charcoal. Only one stone separated them from the white crown—a small observation post.

“We will need to hurry,” the drider smirked.

Shedakor checked his flintlocks and fit them snugly in their holsters. “Hurry? For what?”

“We are about to be attacked,” Sshkkryyahr said as if it were all part of a plan made far in advance. She looked up at all of her companions and then raised an eyebrow at Torl. “It’s good that you brought the carpets. We will need as much speed as we can muster if you hope to earn your prize.”

“There it is,” Iluchus said, pressing her spyglass against her face. “Our next target.”

The amazon army had stopped in an area that proved craggier than any of the horsemen cared for, but the terrain was a washout rather than the stony badlands that could damage hoof and wheel.

“There are only a few of them. Why aren’t we riding in and smashing them?” Cheyamna asked. She hovered nearby. Her wagon, filled with a cadre spell casters, followed the queen at a close distance.

Iluchus wanted very badly to do just that. She bit her lip as Visech explained for her, “The ground is uncertain. Those washouts and outcroppings pose problems for the chariots. There is probably no danger, but we can’t leave anything up to chance.”

The queen nodded. “We’ve been successful against the morehl thus far because we picked every battlefield and we only engaged when we knew all the variables.” Iluchus scowled into the distance. She’d only counted a dozen lava elves, and that made it a tempting prize. They were not plains-dwellers; the morehl didn’t know what signs to look for and the queen was certain they’d gone unnoticed.

Visech borrowed the spyglass and observed them. “They are building some kind of lookout tower to watch for future invasions.”

“Then it is good that we came so early,” the queen hissed.

“Will you wait until night?” Cheyamna asked.

Iluchus and Visech looked at each other blankly. “You must not know much about the morehl… they can see in the dark.”

Cheyamna nodded sheepishly. “Would you protest a magic solution?”

“By all means,” the queen said.

The oracle licked her wrists and held them in the air at her sides, feeling the breath of the elements. She called the other seers to her side and briefly consulted. Together they climbed the nearest stone outcropping and stood atop one of the table-like rises with a height vantage.

Visech and the queen looked at each other nervously. “If they’re seen, we’re…”

A boom cracked the air followed by a ferocious shriek and rushing winds pushed by a blue drake’s wings. The distant morehl panicked and scattered, abandoning the framework of the tower they constructed.

Roaring, the creature sucked in a lungful of air and spat an elemental breath in an arcing line. It blasted the frenzied scouts like a hot stream of piss on a line of ants, only far deadlier. The beast screeched victoriously and flapped its scaly wings, circling around to locate and kill the few stragglers who escaped.

Iluchus grabbed a nearby scout and pointed to the spell casters. “Run up the rise and tell Cheyamna to send the drake onward so we can advance safely. Have them stay put until we send for them—I want to make sure it’s safe and that we won’t need to double back before we expose the Gwich’in. Morehl have been known to lay traps before.”

The runner nodded and then dashed up the hill to relay her orders. As soon as the notice was given, and the dragon begun shrinking towards the distance, a warhorn’s peal split the air from atop the lookout post.

A lone morehl survivor blew the trump and continued blasting it from the uppermost level of the partially completed structure. Iluchus grimaced and snapped her reins. I must have miscounted by one.

She and her warriors hied their mounts and sped towards the lookout post. They had to shut him up as soon as possible. An overt conflict was inevitable, but the last thing they wanted was to lose whatever element of surprise their speed afforded them. None suspected that this border dispute could end diplomatically.

The signalman gave a double blast as the chariots and footmen surged forward and almost into the range of their javelins. As he dropped behind the cover of the outpost walls, morehl roared battle cries all around the amazons.

Iluchus’s troops whirled around, trying to spot the invisible enemies. Pistol cracks and the screams of men echoed through the uneven terrain. Tainted smoke seeped from the patches of ground where the morehl hid.

The spies flung back fine weaves of cloth made by the Grotto’s weavers; they hung over the mouths of caves that the crafty enemy had dug. Lava elves poured out of the earth, kicking scree and soil as they fired flintlocks into the backs and flanks of invading soldiers.

Iluchus howled cursed… the morehl had laid in wait—they’d chosen this battlefield on purpose! She urged her forces onward so they could reposition at the watchtower they’d liberated.

The Gwich’in stood stiff. A sea of enemies separated them from their battalion.

“We’ve got to do something,” Iluchus’s scout yelled as he turned back to the Cheyamna. His eyes blinked, and he gulped with surprise as a blade slid across his throat. Coal-black eyes watched him curiously as the morehl assassin raked the knife against his neck.

Cheyamna only managed a gurgle in response to the scout. She and the rest of her seers collapsed. The last thing either saw before everything faded black was the distant, blue dragon suddenly turning around; with the amazon’s magic dissipated, so did the arcane compulsion for it to move onward.