Light Novel – Zectas – Volume 02 – Chapter 03

Proofreaders: ExperimentBL626, Vaanouney, and Aaron Frawley

Cuezaltzinity or Tlaltezinism

Smoke gave Sierra command over the rest of his private army. They were assigned to look for the labyrinth’s exit.

The moment they arrived in Coatl, Smoke immediately asked Sierra to begin her own mission of ‘Liberating the Maneators’ quest.

This was Smoke’s first time to see a main city. Sierra knew this fact, which helped her understand why he was very excited to explore the wonders that Coatl had to offer ASAP.

Sierra had only passed by the Heraldic city of Coatl herself and didn’t know much about it. She wanted to go with him and explore the city together.

However, her Werebear form hindered her to enter most settlements, let alone a main city. Sierra was pulled out from her musings when Thyrsus tapped her shoulders to give his falcon’s updates.

“Thyr’s initial scouting revealed five villages matching Mitleid’s description of where he escaped from the labyrinth. Two of these villages are east from here, while the rest are to the west.”

It has been a few hours since Sierra and the rest of Smoke’s private army were separated from their leader.

Sierra speedily assessed the situation and decided that splitting the army meant she had to prepare to face the consequence of their reduced manpower.

Yet conversely, it significantly increased their searched area of Coatl’s southern region.

“Nice going, Thyrsus. Please tell your falcon to return ASAP. My map tells me that the villages in the east are Poludnie and Nisko, while the villages in the west are Silap, Salah, and Betul. I know that all of you except for Adder came to Coatl to change jobs. Did any of you get a chance to visit these villages? Remember, we’re looking for a big white mausoleum.”

Sharanga, the young brunette WoodElf, was the first one to speak up.

“Vijaya and I have been to Poludnie and Silap. We went there to look for the manjur recurve bow. There were rumors that these villages have information about the bow that was used by the ‘Guardian Vicars’ of the great god, Cuezaltzin. But I don’t remember seeing any cemeteries in those villages. There was a huge white warehouse though.”

Ichaival waited for Sharanga to finish before he added in his knowledge of those villages.

“I went to Salah village. I think they had a cemetery, but the reason I went there was because I heard they had a special treatment to turn black hair permanently into brown. Sadly, I didn’t have enough zecs to pay for the treatment but now…”

In an irritated voice, Sharanga interrupted Ichaival.

“What does that have to do with our mission?”

“I’m just saying I could go visit Salah again and get the treatment. Smoke, gave us a hefty honorarium and I could finally afford to get my hair into the color that you liked.”

“It wouldn’t matter what color your hair was. I still see you as the same snot nosed kid who used to drop worms into my back.”

“But, Shar…”

Sierra stomped the ground hard. She had to interrupt Sharanga and Ichaival’s quarrel.

“Both of you stop it. This isn’t the time or the place for that. Let’s just double check all these villages. Adder, you take Jinggu, Sharanga, and Thyrsus to the villages in the east. The rest of us will take the villages in the west. Also for our cover story, let’s just say that we are looking for the manjur recurve bow. Everybody got that?”

Ichaival was clearly disappointed with Sierra’s decision. He had wanted to be grouped together with Sharanga.

They were tasked to find the exit in one of these villages. Once found, they were to try to enter the labyrinth and use the exit.

If they couldn’t, then they should at least secure the area in preparation for Smoke and the other Maneators’ escape.

“Adder, I trust your leadership skills. However, please remember that our primary objective is to find the exit. If you encounter any form of danger, please escape. Everyone, please remember that your lives are more important than any quest or mission.”

Adder nodded.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about. We’ve got the eastern villages covered.”

“Alright, give us a call when you’re done investigating those two villages. We will do the same on our end.”

Adder and his group headed out to the nearest village, Poludnie.

                                        
* * * * * * 

Their one armed commander lead the way as they carried on and traveled inside one of the patches of Otaczac forest. Sharanga and Thyrsus followed closely while Jinggu stayed behind a couple of feet to guard the rear.

Otaczac forest used to completely surround Coatl. When the city started to expand, the mayor ordered that they cut down the trees to make roads and farmlands.

Despite that, the forest started to reclaim its lost land and grew back on the roads that were not frequently used. There were many forest fragmentation which tried to connect with each other as they did in the past.

Otaczac forest permeated with life. There were creatures of various shapes and sizes, from the insects that crawled to the monsters that flew over the branches.

Adder and his men only focused on the beasts that were either a threat to them or were useful. They hunted down any of these monsters that came within their range.

Smoke had ordered them to loot and to hunt, even on a reconnaissance mission like this one. They were told to gain more levels and items. He kept on telling them this one line.

‘Why waste your precious time doing just one thing when you can effectively multi-task and do several?’

Adder remembered how Smoke trained his passive abilities. While Smoke acquired knowledge with a book in each hand, he also dodged four monsters’ attack to increase his passive abilities. 

He knew that he had to follow the example of his young master.

Frequently, they met a nye of blood pheasants, a small bird which averaged a height of twenty inches. These creatures’ levels were from 30 to 40.

Their feathers varied from smoke white to ash gray but all of them retained the blood red colored feathers below their beaks and tails.

These monsters weren’t much of a threat to them, but their sheer number could become a nuisance.

Adder and his team killed these monsters with a single hit, which prevented any potential swarm of blood pheasants.

The blood pheasant’s meat and feathers came really handy to the Hunters who needed food and raw materials for their arrows.

Seldomly, they also met a group of pine martens, slender monsters with weasel-like bodies and a length averaging four feet. These creatures had huge rounded ears and stubby legs.

These monsters levels were from 48 to 57. Adder and his men had often seen pine martens that carried a carcass of a blood pheasant into their hole, up on the thick trees.

Then there’s your extremely rare strigidae owls. There were just a few of them scattered in Otaczac forest. These huge silvery owls stood at five feet with wingspans of twelve feet.

These monster’s levels varied from 70 to 80. They mostly hunted groups of pine martens and nests of blood pheasants.

Jinggu had a contest with his twin on who could bag the most strigidae owls. He wanted to hunt at least one, but they never saw any of that monstrous bird get within their range.

After a few hours, Poludnie finally came into view.

Adder motioned for everyone to get closer as he gave out his instructions on how to investigate this village.

“Since Sharanga has been here, she will go into the village together with Thyrsus. I think six hours should be enough time for you two to look around, while Jinggu and I will check out the surrounding area.”

Sharanga and Thyrsus nodded and prepared themselves to go into Poludnie. They called for their falcons and asked them to stay perched on their shoulders.

On their way to the village entrance they spotted two Human Cavalry Knights on top of dirus wolves from behind them. The Knights were also headed to the village.

“Good day, travelers. We’ve just returned from our patrol and my friend here pointed out that it’s weird we didn’t see you on our way out. He seems to think that you might be bandits. If you don’t mind can you tell us where you two came from?”

Thyrsus answered posthaste.

“Oh, that must have been because we were still sleeping inside our tents.”

The second Cavalry Knight spoke up.

“Tent? I didn’t see any tents on our way out to patrol.”

Sharanga unwittingly followed Thyrsus’ lead.

“Did you check the forest fragment about two kilometers southeast of here? We built our tents inside the forest. I guess it’s just my WoodElf nature. Also our falcons have taken a liking to us sleeping in an area where there is an abundance of trees. Although, my friend Thyrsus has been complaining about it, saying it’s dangerous. I didn’t think it would cause any trouble to you, kind sirs.”

The young huntress gave a long winded answer. She was unsure whether she had convinced them or not.

The Cavalry Knight’s dirus wolf started to sniff them. Their falcons instinctively flew away as the massive beast’s breath drew near.

“Hmm, you WoodElves have a very strange sleeping preference. You should know that it’s much safer to sleep in the plains right? Can I have your names and your place of origin? Also state your business in Poludnie?”

Sharanga dragged on to entertain the Cavalry Knight’s questions.

“Wow, when did this place become so strict?”

The Cavalry Knight questioningly looked at Sharanga.

“That’s all thanks to those no good Brandal bandits. What? You haven’t heard of the Brandal bandits? I guess, that’s understandable. They did arrive only three months ago.”

“So that’s the reason why the Cavalry Knights are out here patrolling the village?”

“Yes, Duke Burmistrz ordered us to protect the villages outside the walls of Coatl. But before anything else, you forgot to mention your place of origin and the purpose of your visit to Poludnie.”

“Right, we came from Coatl. We’re here on a quest to look for the manjur recurve bow.”

“Ha! Good luck with that. We’ve heard of that story as well. I don’t think you will find any lead here. But you’re welcome to try.”

This time it was Thyrsus who added on his own musings.

“Thank you. About these bandits, it was very thoughtful of the Duke to send you guys here, considering how costly it is to send out a detachment let alone, Cavalry Knights.”

“My lord Duke Burmistrz is truly generous. I’m very honored to serve such a righteous man.”

A few seconds passed as the Cavalry Knights continued to stare down at Thyrsus and Sharanga.

“Umm, can we proceed to Poludnie now?”

“Of course, of course. Go right ahead. Remember to keep your falcons leashed within the village.”

The Hunters nodded and called for their falcons to return. As they walked a couple of steps, they distinctly heard the laughter of the Cavalry Knights. Both of them wondered what made the Cavalry Knights laugh.

Poludnie was a craftsman village. The total land area of the village was about thirteen acres. The residential area was at four acres, while the rest were for the shops and business of Poludnie. Its total population was only 537.

The majority of the people that lived in the village were Humans at 78%, WoodElves at 11%, Lioumereans at 5%, Dwarves were at 4%, and Gnomes at 2%. The village only had two main gates and a high wall that encased the whole village.

Sharanga let out a whistle as she observed the changes in the village.

“Looks like those bandits really did a number on this village. The walls weren’t this tall when I came here before.”

“I wonder if Adder and Jinggu ran into any of the patrolling Cavalry Knights.”

“I hope not. Those two might kill the Cavalry Knights just because they looked at them funny.”

After they searched the entire village, both Thyrsus and Sharanga reached the same conclusion. This wasn’t the village that they were after.

There was a large white building, but the residents there said that it was used by the Cavalry Knights as their sleeping quarters and stable.

The two Hunters decided to head out and report their findings to their commander. It was almost night time when they arrived.

Adder and Jinggu stayed hidden inside the forest. When they finally saw the Hunters, they went out of their hiding place and greeted them.

Jinggu had made a camouflaged shelter, he used the vines and the branches in the forest. Inside they had grilled some aromatic blood pheasants.

Their one armed commander looked up as they got closer.

“How was it? Did you find the mausoleum?”

Thyrsus was the first one to answer Adder’s question.

“Sorry, it wasn’t there. Although, there was a large building, but it was in the center of the village. If Mitleid did pass there, he would have caused a large commotion, but he said he was able to escape quietly.”

Sharanga added her findings of the village.

“I’d just like to point out that the residents of the village felt weird. They had tired eyes, and the way they looked at the Cavalry Knights… it’s almost like they were wary of them.”

Adder let out a deep breath.

“Thank you both. I guess this means we proceed to Nisko. I’ll call Sierra and give her our updates about this village.”

While Adder spoke with Sierra, Jinggu quietly asked Thyrsus and Sharanga.

“Did you guys see any OrkElves in that village?”

Sharanga sadly looked at the OrkElf and answered his question.

“Sorry, no OrkElf. I know Madam Dawny said that she saw an OrkElf traveling between the villages but she did say that it was years ago and she wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was an OrkElf.”

Jinggu looked depressed when he heard Sharanga, but he forced a smile as he looked at his friends.

“I know, but I can’t give up. I’m sure someday we will find other OrkElves.”

Adder had just finished his conversation with Sierra.

“Okay, Sierra told me that they were also done with Salah and they found nothing there that fits the description of the exit. Let’s take a quick meal break before we head out.”

Sharanga and Thyrsus prepared the meals for their pets. They gave the chopped blood pheasant’s meat to their respective falcons Thyr and Ranga.

While they ate Jinggu spoke his mind about something that had bothered him for some time.

“Adder, I know that you respect Smoke and that you respect his decision of putting Sierra in charge after him, but don’t you think that decision is wrong? You were the first member of his private army. Heck, you even gave up a limb for him.”

“What’s wrong with Smoke’s decision? Isn’t Sierra stronger than me? She has greater life and defense, and I’m sure if she was there in that murlock’s hidden cave we would definitely have won against them. Smoke did still give me the title commander. I don’t have any problem at all. Believe me when I say, I feel nothing but respect for Sierra. Her bravery and her thirst for battle reminds me of my wife, Maxine.”

Adder stared quietly into the camp fire as he took a bite out of his grilled blood pheasant. While he remembered the abruptly taken life of his beloved, it left a bitter aftertaste…

* * * * * * 

Vijaya and Ichaival came back from Salah. It used to be a busy trading village, with a land area of eight acres. Its shops catered to almost all kinds of jobs. The owners were happy with their earned one percent out of their sold items.

Sadly, the Brandals laid waste to the village. It was now a rundown version of its former self. The population of 682 was reduced to 91.

The prominent shops were burnt to the ground. Only the burnt wooden beams were left. Most of Salah’s residents migrated to Coatl or other nearby villages with a better financial and security situation.

Vijaya and Ichaival sat down before Sierra and Sharur who waited for them besides their campfire.

Sierra intentively watched Sharur prepare a blood pheasant. She asked each specific procedure and the exact amount of ingredient that he used.

“And what do you use next?”

“Next, we sprinkle some salt, black pepper, and paprika. Then we brush the melted butter over the pheasant meat and put it on the grill.”

“And how long should we grill it?”

“It depends on your preference if you want it a bit raw, twenty minutes should be fine. Normally, it takes about thirty minutes for a well cooked pheasant.”

Vijaya and Ichaival laughed at the sight of an OrkElf teaching a Werebear how to cook. It’s not everyday that you see such a rare event.

Sierra looked up as she heard laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

With no delay, Vijaya and Ichaival straightened their faces. The female WoodElf was the first one to defend their laughter.

“Sorry, we didn’t mean anything by that. Its just the two of you look really menacing, and here you are cooking. It’s just something you wouldn’t expect to see.”

Sierra and Sharur exchange glances and looked around their campfire area. It was true that they looked like they were on some kind of cooking show rather than on a mission. All four of them laughed as they realized how ridiculous the scene must look like.

The red Werebear tried to hold her chuckle in and spoke in a serious voice.

“Wait, wait. Let’s get back to the real reason why we’re here. Give us your findings on Salah.”

Ichaival gave their report about the village.

“Right, we didn’t find any mausoleum, let alone a white building. Aside from that, I’d also like to inform you of the changes in the village. It has been reduced to almost 14% of its former population. There are barely any goods inside that village. All they have left are food and other basic necessities. Also, the shop that offered the special treatment for my hair closed.”

“Why? What happened?”

“It looks like some bandit group called the Brandal ransacked the village. Most shops were pillaged, establishments burnt to the ground. Looks like Sharanga will really get mad at me. I’ve once again failed to get the hair color she wanted.”

Vijaya shoved Ichaival because he strayed out of the correct report. Sierra didn’t mind Ichaival’s comments about Sharanga. She knew he really loved her. He just had a weird way of showing it.

“Weren’t there any of the patrolling Cavalry Knights guarding Salah?”

Vijaya answered in a dejected voice.

“One of the elders told us that, there used to be Cavalry Knights defending them. Back when they could still pay for the patrol tax that the Duke imposed. Unfortunately, the trade industry in the last few months were not so great. They eventually ran out of money to pay the patrol tax. Immediately, the Cavalry Knights left.”

Ichaival finished their report and said.

“I think that the Brandals were keeping tabs on the village. Because the day the Cavalry Knights stopped protecting the village was the same day that the Brandals came and stole every precious thing in Salah.”

“Hmm. I just finished talking with Adder earlier. He said that Poludnie had become much stricter because of the presence of the Cavalry Knights. Both of these villages have undergone major changes. We better watch out for these Brandal bandits.”

Sierra and her group ate their barbecued blood pheasants when Smoke called them. She got up and got some distance away from the group to have a private conversation with him.

“…”

“Smoke! You better be joking, Don’t forget that I have most of your private army here with me.”

“I’m joking, I’m joking. Jeez, anyway you better take care and make sure to keep everyone safe and intact. I don’t want to have one of my men having a missing limb.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, I’m better than you remember? How could you have let Adder lose his arm in the first place? Tsk tsk tsk.”

“Yeah, yeah, just be safe, okay?”

“You, too…”

Sierra went back to her group and told them that Smoke had joined a tournament called Swordsman to Knight. She wondered out loud about the place where Smoke, Laernea, and Gandiva were staying.

Sharur answered Sierra’s queries.

“Most likely, Gandiva and Laernea brought him to Madam Dawny’s farm. That’s where we stayed ourselves when we were there to become Archers.”

“Who’s Madam Dawny?”

Vijaya answered Sierra’s question.

“She’s a retired adventurer that looked after the trouble making Lioumereans when they were younger. She brought them to Nanahuatl when they were around eight, Yeah I think they were eight. She was hoping that the village would reform them. Nanahuatl has a miraculous power of reforming deviants, but its limits were tested on those two.”

Vijaya, Ichaival, and Sharur all burst out in laughter as soon as soon as the Vijaya finished her sentence. They remembered how much trouble those two caused.

Ichaival carried on and told Sierra about what Madam Dawny did for him.

“Madam Dawny is a really cryptic old lady, and her talent of bringing out your potential is just as mysterious. I came back to her when I got my advance job of a Hunter. I told her that everyone had gotten certain specialty abilities except for me. She asked me to show her my skills with the bow and arrow. I obliged her by hitting the bull’s eye squarely.”

“And then? What happened next?”

“She told me to keep on hitting the same target until I would run out of arrows. She also said that even if I wasn’t given a special ability if I would work hard enough, something good would come of it. I obediently followed her instructions and spent the next week repeating the same thing over and over again.”

Vijaya and Sharur nodded in agreement on how Madam Dawny’s advice always seemed insane, but eventually gave out great results.

“I noticed that the time it took me to use all of my arrows had gotten shorter as the days passed. Then at the end of that week, Madam Dawny told me to release four arrows at once. I laughed and told her that I couldn’t do that without activating some ability. She asked me, why not activate my own ability then. I couldn’t come up with an answer. So, I just followed what she told me. This was how I ended up learning my ability ‘Phantom Arrows’. Now that our talented leader, Smoke, is under her care, I’m sure he will gain some amazing abilities in the short time that he is with her.”

Sierra wondered if Madam Dawny knew her Priestess mentor Nenek. From what they were saying about her, she thought that it was highly likely.

“Madam Dawny sounds really similar to my mentor. I wonder if she could give me any advice on being a Werebear.”

This time Sharur gave his opinion on Madam Dawny.

“I think that there’s a high chance that she could give you some. I mean she was the one who told me and my brother to get the Siege Ranger job. She said that our natural high strength would be a hindrance if we took on the job of a Hunter. It feels like she can see into your soul and knows how to make your true potential come out.”

“Damn it! Looks like Smoke is in for a lot of training under her tutelage. He keeps on giving me this tasks where I can’t level up. I’m gonna tell him that I should improve my fighting ability as well. Although, it is understandable that I can’t go into Coatl on account of this curse, but still. I can’t stagnate at this level.”

Vijaya thought to add her impression about this special mission.

“I think that this mission isn’t as plain as we think it is. Let’s just wait and see. I think that this could be more fun than being stuck in such a strict city like Coatl.”

Sierra nodded. Out in the unrestrained wilderness, enjoying the night sky lit by thousands of stars was definitely better. She couldn’t think of a better way to end their first day as they searched for the labyrinth’s exit.                                     

* * * * * * 
Adder and his men were hidden in front of Nisko’s main gate. From their obscured location, they observed that the village looked like a ghost town.

“We haven’t detected any presence of the Cavalry Knights. I think all of us can safely go inside the village. Does anyone have any objections?”

No one raised their hand. Everyone agreed with Adder’s decision. All four of them entered the village.

Nisko was a small farming village. Its total land area was twenty acres, but it was mostly farmlands. The housing of the village were all cooped up in a two acre lot protected by their shoddily built wooden walls.

As they came to the village entrance, all the residents started to run to the safety of their houses. They were afraid that the Brandals have returned to pillage their village once more.

With all their weapons safely tucked away, Adder raised both his shoulders to show that he was a one armed man. He wanted them to know that he was harmless.

One of the villagers came out of his house. He carried a pitch fork and drew closer.

“What do you want? You’re not from the Cavalry Knights or from the Brandals.”

“My friends and I mean you no harm. We come from Coatl. We’re simply here looking for information about the manjur recurve bow.”

Slowly, other residents came out of their houses to watch the strangers in their village.

“Hahaha, the manjur recurve bow? People still do believe in that myth? Let me guess, you’re another Cuezaltzinian follower aren’t you? You people are really funny. You believe in justice and equality when clearly it doesn’t exist. All of us here in Nisko have done no wrong. We’ve paid our taxes regularly. Then a charlatan of a trader offered to pay double the regular price of our harvest, and quickly ran off as soon as we loaded it in their caravan. They ran with our goods without paying a single zec.”

Adder was a strong follower of Cuezaltzin. Even though he was born into slavery. He was brought up by the elders of Condortl to believe in what is just and good.

He remembered that before he met Smoke, he was about to give up on being a Cuezaltzinian, but his faith was reinforced and strengthened when his entire village that was enslaved for decades was freed by an outsider.

Adder believed that it was their people’s perseverance and persistent prayers to the great god that delivered Smoke to them.

“Please don’t blame your misfortune on, great god Cuezaltzin. I was once where you are now, on the edge of my faith, questioning everything that I stand for, but I was saved by our great leader. We were here for a different reason, but I think my friends and I are actually here to stop you from converting to Tlaltezinism. Please continue living your lives as you did before. I know that the spirit of the god in your hearts will enlighten you.”

The villager with a pitch fork laughed.

“Everyone did you hear what this one armed preacher was saying? He says that the great god Cuezaltzin has not forsaken us and in fact have brought them to deliver us from this harsh predicament. HAHAHAHA. Talk is cheap, one armed preacher! Now off with you. There is nothing for your kind here.”

The villager picked up a stone on the ground and threw it at Adder. The Condortlian did not dodge the villager’s pathetic throw. He took the stone directly on his face and looked straight into the villager’s eyes.

“We will leave, and we may not return but believe me when I say that your lives will soon get better.”

Adder left Nisko and his group followed him towards the exit. Nobody else threw a stone at them. The villagers just watched in silence as Adder and his men left their desolate village.

After the eastern group had finished their investigation on the two villages of Poludnie and Nisko. They swiftly rushed towards Sierra and the rest of their teammates.

* * * * * * 
“Adder said that they’re gonna meet up with us in Betul. Ichaival, Vijaya, let’s follow the same procedure for Silap village, but considering that this is the largest out of all the villages, I think allotting the whole day will barely be enough for you to investigate. But I believe you can still finish in time. Adder and I have checked the map in advance, and we’ve both decided on our next base camp. Let’s meet up at (Latitude: 6°16′ S, Longitude: 106°48′ E). Adder and his group are already heading there. Let’s all meet up at 2200 hours.”

Vijaya and Ichaival nodded in concert. They’ve already packed up their needed gear and headed out to Silap.

Three falcons swoop down from the branches. Thyr perched on his master, while Vij and Aya each took a shoulder on the young Huntress.

Both Sierra and Sharur headed to the opposite direction. The gigantic Werebear and the tall OrkElf towered over the bushes, shrubs, and even some trees in this fledgling forest fragment.

Because Sierra’s ‘Animal Instinct’ ability could detect the presence of danger, she didn’t mind that they weren’t concealed well by the forest.

The tall duo were the first one to arrive at the meeting spot. They prepared to make a hidden base camp. While building their base, Sierra suddenly stopped.

She felt someone’s eyes were on her back, she turned around and found no one, her ‘Animal Instinct’ ability also gave her no warning.

“Did you feel that?”

“Huh?”

“I think someone’s watching us.”

Sharur tried to look around.

“Nope, can’t sense a thing. That’s probably just some strigidae owl. Their eyesight is very far. I think they may want to eat our barbequed blood pheasant.”

“You sure? Hmm, I guess that could have been it. Hey, maybe you’ll get a strigidae owl. I think Adder said that Jinggu had already killed one.”

“What? Are you serious? I have to leave. What direction did you say you felt someone was looking at you?”

“I’m not sure. I think it was somewhere that way.”

“Alright. I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’m sorry I have to run out. I’ve just finished building the base camp anyway.”

“Sure, sure. I hope you finally manage to get one.”

Sharur ran in the direction that Sierra pointed to. He sprinted as fast as he could. He knew that if his twin were to win this bet he would never hear the end of it.

Sierra gave a weird Werebear laugh as she saw the OrkElf run. It was funny how his huge ballista would get in his way as he jumped through the bushes.  It was the first time that she was alone, ever since she met Smoke.

She thought about going hunting herself but realized that she wanted to try out the dishes that she had learned from Sharur in the real world. Sierra logged off and didn’t return until their designated meeting time.                                 

* * * * * * 
Adder and his men arrived at the camouflaged base camp. If they didn’t know the exact coordinates they would have had a hard time finding the place.

Sharur was on top of a tree in one of the sentinel platforms that they’ve built. He was keeping a look out and waited for everybody’s arrival.

The moment he saw his twin. He immediately grab a rope and slid off the platform.

“HAHAHA, Jinggu! I’ve got something to show you. I’ve managed to kill a strigidae owl. Sierra said that she felt something was watching her. It wasn’t in the exact location that she pointed to but I still got this monster.”

Sharur briskly went inside their base camp and brought out the dead carcass of the elusive monster.

“Ha! I think this is just a really fat blood pheasant.”

“What are you talking about? This owl is huge. You can’t compare this to any blood pheasant. Unless you mean that… You’ve managed to kill an even larger strigidae owl?”

Jinggu fell silent and looked to his companions who just arrived with him.

“Alright, I think we should all get some rest. Right, Adder? We need to have energy for our next operation.”

“Jinggu! Quit changing the subject. If you don’t answer me I’ll take that as a no and I’ll claim that I’ve won our bet.”

Sierra stepped outside as he heard the twin OrkElves talking.

“Hey! You’re all here. Let’s just wait for Ichaival and Vijaya they should arrive soon. Umm… What’s up with Jinggu and Sharur?”

Jinggu was lying down on the ground while Sharur picked up a stick. He waved it in front of Jinggu and then he threw it far away. Jinggu sprang up and swiftly looked for the thrown stick.

Sharanga was the one who answered Sierra’s question.

“Sharur won the bet, and now Jinggu has to be his pet dog for the next forty-eight hours.”

“HAHAHAHA, what kind of bet is that? Hmm… But I like it! I think Smoke and I will have a similar bet.”

Everyone laughed as they saw Jinggu being toyed with by his brother. Sierra clapped her claws and called for everyone’s attention.

“Alright, enough of that, Sharur. Have your dog heel for the meantime. Let’s all eat first before we start catching up.”

Vijaya and Ichaival arrived shortly after, and managed to finish scouting the biggest village out of their five targets.

Otaczac forest was usually a quiet place at night, but this particular forest fragment was filled with boisterous laughter as the two scouting groups united in a small merry feast.

The two group leaders sat beside each other and started sharing more detailed results of the investigated villages so far.

“What were your impressions on Poludnie and Nisko?”

“I think all of them have lived sheltered lives, and when they met their first major trial they succumbed to it and forgot their faith and converted to what’s convenient.”

“Faith? Converted? What do you mean?”

Adder straightened his posture and looked at Sierra seriously.

“Huh? Don’t you know about the four major religions in Zectas?  Tlaltezinism, Chalchizinity, Tezcazinism, and Cuezaltzinity. Have you heard of those names before?”

“I’ve only heard about Cuezaltzinity. That’s the order that my mentor Nenek is under. I think most citizens in Centeo are Cuezaltzinians.”

“If your mentor is a Cuezaltzinian Priestess, why didn’t she teach you about Cuezaltzinity?”

“She wanted to, but I ran off the moment I got everything I needed to find Smoke.”

Adder looked at Sierra sternly. He couldn’t believe how she treated her mentor and how she ran out on a lecture about Cuezaltzinity.

“That was very disrespectful of you. Anyway, Cuezaltzinity isn’t an order. It’s the major religion of Chayotl Kingdom (Western Kingdom). We Condortlians are all Cuezaltzinians, and the same goes for the Nanahuatlanos. Even when our freedom was taken from us. We believed that the great god Cuezaltizin will deliver us from bondage.”

“Oh, that’s what I meant when I said that Nenek was from the order of Cuezaltzinity.”

“Right… And I guess you also know what Cuezaltzinity is all about?”

Sierra sighed and asked in an exasperated voice.

“Like I said, I was in a hurry to find Smoke, and left the moment she started talking about Cuezaltzinity. Can you just tell me what it is already?”

“Cuezaltzinity tells us that you get what you deserve. It may not come at once but it will come. If you’ve done good to others then good things will happen to you. That’s why when we were enslaved our people knew that it wasn’t simply because of the virile and fecund lizards it was also due to the fact that we prayed to another god.”

“Wow! I guess great god Cuezaltzin doesn’t like you worshiping other gods.”

“It isn’t only him. All of the great gods will not allow it if you give homage to any other god that isn’t under their realm.”

“That’s really harsh. Are you sure that all of you believe that?”

“I know that all of us here believe that. Aren’t you a Cuezaltzinian?”

“I guess I am… But I’ve never heard about the other three religions? They sound like their religions from the other great gods? Can you tell me more about them?”

Adder simply stared at Sierra in disbelief.

Sharanga who sat near them saw the tension between the two leaders and decided to answer in Adder’s behalf.

“That’s right, the other religions are from the other four great gods. Tezcazinism is the main religion in Thayotl Kingdom (Eastern Kingdom). They believe that the afterlife doesn’t exist. That this world is all there is to it. That’s why most of them strongly value zecs and other worldly pleasures.”

Sierra didn’t mind Adder’s stare and faced Sharanga instead.

“Wait, I thought their god was dead? Aren’t all the four great gods dead?”

“Eh? Dead? Where did you hear that? They aren’t dead. None of them are. They just left this world to us mortals. I’m sure that somewhere they’re watching us and giving us ‘Gahum’, their spiritual energy and divine guidance from a far.”

“What about the the other two religions?”

“I’m not really sure about any of the other religions. All I know is that Tlaltezinism is the main religion in Vitzytl Kingdom (Southern Kingdom). Tlaltezinism believes in natural selection. The strong has all the rights in the world while the weak exist only to support the strong.”

Sierra faced Adder again and asked.

“Is this what you meant? Earlier, when you said that people are converting… Why would anyone want to convert to Tlaltezinism?”

Adder was still upset about Sierra’s lack of knowledge about Cuezaltzinity but answered her anyway.

“For survival. If the residents give in and convert then they believe that Tlaltezin will protect them and will allow them to live longer.”

Sierra kept on shaking her furry head back and forth. She couldn’t believe the kinds of religion in Zectas.

“I guess that means Chalchizinity is the major religion in Mictaztl Kingdom (Northern Kingdom)?”

Adder nodded his head.

“Yes. Chalchizinity believes that death is the true meaning of life. I don’t know exactly what it means, but that’s all I know about it.”

Sierra was dumbfounded with the overload of information. It has almost been a year since she had been playing but she never knew the importance of the four major religions.

She remembered reading somewhere about the main religion of the kingdoms, but most walkthroughs and FAQs indicated the same thing.

That it was negligible. Seeing that the kingdom’s description was practically the same as the described religion. The game guides also stated that rather than focus on religion, a player should focus on fame and charm to get better intimacies with NPCs.

In the one year that Sierra had traveled around Chayotl Kingdom (Western Kingdom). She had never stayed in one place long enough to note the differences in the people living there. She decided to ask Smoke about this on their next conversation.

Sierra realized that if she were to analyze all the religions and their effects it would take too long and that their main objective was to find the labyrinth not convince the residents to convert or to stay to a certain religion.

“Umm. Can you refresh my mind again? Why are we talking about all these religions? What do they have to do with our mission?”

“Well, they really don’t, but I told Smoke from day one that I will free the oppressed and give justice to those who deserve it. That was our deal for me joining his private army. I know that it’s also the same with the rest of them as well.”

Sierra looked around and noticed that the boisterous noise had died out. Everybody was glued in on their conversation.

“Hi, everyone. How long have you guys been listening to our talk?”

Vijaya answered.

“Since we heard you were talking about the different religions.”

It just dawned on Sierra that it was practically from the beginning of her conversation with Adder.

“And? What are your opinions?”

Sharur spoke rapidly, before anyone else could give their thoughts.

“I say we stick to our primary objective. We only have one more village to look at, and I think that the exit should be there. After that, we wait in front of any village and kill all these Brandals.”

Sierra looked around their concealed base camp and saw that all their eyes glowed with the same desire. They wanted to free all the villagers from their current predicament.

“It looks like we’ve picked up a secondary objective to this reconnaissance mission.”

Everybody cheered enthusiastically and clapped loudly, while the falcons produced a variety of sounds, from shrieks to clicks and whistles to show their approval of what Sierra just said.

“Okay, okay, I think we can all settle down now. For the benefit of those not present on Vijaya and Ichaival’s report about their investigation on Silap. Vijaya, Ichaival, you have the floor.”

Vijaya rose up from where she sat and stood in front of everyone, Ichaival followed and positioned himself beside her.

“I had Vij and Aya fly around the village. Outside its wall, of course. All these villages have strict rules about falcons flying inside them. I don’t know why.”

Ichaival made a forced cough to help Vijaya focus on her report.

“Oh, right. Anyway, my falcons found no other potential exit aside from the southern and eastern gate. I also observed that the people were very friendly. There were no signs of any attacks from the Brandals. They had a cemetery near the eastern gate but no mausoleums of any kind.”

Ichaival picked up where Vijaya left off.

“As some of you may know, Silap used to be a ‘stop off’ village en route to Betul. All Silap had to offer were their hot springs and reasonably priced inns, but they always held the security of their guests, as well as their own, as their highest priority. Aside from paying the Cavalry Knights patrolling the area, they also have their own satellite base of the famous mercenary group, ‘Avendre’. There are about fifty mercs stationed in Silap. Some residents from the pillaged villages migrated to Silap. Its residential area has tripled in size. Commerce is booming with the new business district. In conclusion, we think that they’ve already converted to Tlaltezinism.”

Sierra watched all of their reaction to Ichaival and Vijaya’s report. She noted that they weren’t bothered that the residents converted, and from first glance it appeared that they were happy with the conversion.

Sierra gave her own opinion about Silap.

“With that I would like to state that I don’t want to go on some kind of holy crusade. If they’ve decided to convert to their new religion I think we should respect their decision. I’m sure they’ve considered a lot of things before finally deciding to convert.”

Adder, Ichaival, Jinggu, Sharanga, Sharur, Thyrsus, and Vijaya all looked at each other. They smiled and nodded and agreed with what Sierra was saying.

Jinggu looked at Adder and thought to speak in his behalf.

“We’re not preachers, and we do respect their decision. I know that what you said makes sense. I think you had misunderstood what our secondary objective was. We don’t want to convince anyone to stick to Cuezaltzinity. We only want to show them that Cuezaltzin’s teachings are real and we can do that by eliminating these Brandal bandits. We just want to follow what Smoke did, nothing more nothing less.”

Sierra’s eyes widened, there were only eight of them and Smoke wasn’t even with them. She thought that it was too dangerous to fight a bandit group, just by themselves. They didn’t even know how many of them there were. There were too many factors to consider.

“Wait… what? I thought you only wanted to convince them to stay as Cuezaltzinians? Are you sure we could handle an entire bandit group with just eight of us? I’m confident with my life and defense, but I’m concerned for your safety. I don’t think it sounds a simple as you say it is.”

Adder looked at the troubled, Sierra.

“I have a proposal for our next operation. We’ll send Ichaival and Sharanga to Betul, while we will send out all the falcons to stand guard on the plundered villages. Since we’re not sure which particular village their next target is. I suggest we stay here until one of the falcons tells us the exact location of the Brandal’s base. We won’t take any direct action until we have all the information we need.”

Ichaival did not listen to what everything Adder said, he only heard his name was together with Sharanga.

“Ahh, that’s right! It has to be Sharanga and myself to investigate Betul because Vijaya can practically understand her falcons’ shrieks and Thyrsus can see what his falcon sees. That does make a lot of sense.”

Sharanga frowned and stayed silent the whole time. Adder noticed her and wanted to reassure her that this was a serious mission.

“Don’t worry, you’ll also have Jinggu and Sharur with you. They’ll guard your from the forest their great range should see everything that’s happening to you.”

Sharanga finally relaxed and released her frown.

With all their planning, Sierra forgot to tell them of the great news that she got from Smoke earlier. She clapped loudly as she usually does to call everyone’s attention.

“Everyone, I’d like to tell you some good news.”

All the members of Smoke private army looked at Sierra to listen to what the good news was.

“Smoke has won the district championship. He’s even won a glaive called Rzeka…”

Jinggu and Sharur both shouted at the same time.

“Rzeka! That’s the ten million zecs glaive!”

Sharur could not contain his amazement.

“It used to belong to the famous General Grave, the legendary Cavalry Knight of Justice.”

Sierra tapped Sharur’s shoulder to settle him down.

“Okay, okay, you can relax now. Smoke said that the finals for the tournament isn’t until a week from now. He says that his training hard in Madam Dawny’s farm and is sending his regards to all of you.”

The members of Smoke’s private army were proud of their leader. They kept on talking about his accolades and accomplishments. They knew that once they’ve succeeded eliminating the Brandals, Smoke would be proud of them as well.

Everyone was about to get some rest to re-energize for tomorrow’s activities. Sierra decided to log off to continue her real life experimentation of the Zectas’ menu she learned.                                 

* * * * * * 
Sherry was browsing through the Zectas forum. Everywhere she looked all she could see promotions about Coatl’s Knight themed events. The prize of the Swordsman to Knight Tournament’s complete Knight set totaled forty million zecs.

The ‘Muddy Boar Catching’ prize was cold cash of five hundred thousand zecs. The ‘Mounted Race’ prize was a trophy and and an armored carriage fit for a king, priced at thirty million zecs.

The final event the ‘Jousting Tournament’ offered a trophy, a mount armor set, and a cash prize of ten million zecs. If you were to add everything up it would be worth sixty million zecs.

“No wonder everyone is excited about Coatl’s events. With such prizes most Swordsmen and Knights would definitely head there.”

After browsing through the Zectas’ website, Sherry went to their kitchen and started to prepare the dishes that she had learned in the virtual reality world.

Sherry wasn’t too confident with her average looks. That’s why she wanted everyone that knew her to remember her cooking.

She cooked at least a dozen dishes before she felt confident that she would let her uncle Alex taste it. Two hours passed, and she had two dishes prepared.

“Lunch is ready! Come and get it!”

Alex had brought in his girlfriend Gloria. Gloria was about his age at around forty. She had blond hair and the body of a sprint runner.

Her uncle had told her that they met when he was out jogging. He had invited her over because Sherry said that she would prepare a special meal for them.

Sherry always cooked very tasty meals, and Alex wanted to show off his niece’s talent to Gloria.

“First, we have this mystery stew. I hope you’ll like it.”

Alex pulled a chair for Gloria and answered his niece.

“I’m sure we’ll love it.”

Alex and Gloria caught a whiff of the soup and immediately felt hungry. They blew on their spoon full of mystery stew as it was still steaming hot.

Gloria complimented Sherry’s cooking.

“Mmm… This is really good stew. Can you tell me what’s the secret to this tasty dish?”

“I’ll tell you the ingredients as soon as you finished the next one. Sorry I only have two dishes for you to taste. I’m having a hard time finding the right ingredients. Next, we have this mystery barbeque.”

Alex took a guess at what the mystery barbeque was.

“Mmm… grilled chicken. I like it. Gloria, let me cut those up for you.”

“It’s okay. I can do it myself. Mmm… What’s the secret sauce that you used? They don’t really taste like chicken at all.”

Sierra smiled as she heard their compliments.

“Well, for the stew it’s actually a rabbit stew, and the grilled chicken is actually a pheasant. In Zectas it’s called medicinal rabbit stew and grilled blood pheasant. The game’s ingredients required a magical medicinal herb. Since we don’t have those in the real world I used ginseng, but just a bit of course. Those things are really expensive.”

At full tilt, Gloria took a glass of water and gulped it down.

“How dare you? You’ve fed me something from out of a game menu, and worst you’ve fed me a rabbit? I don’t eat rabbit, and what’s a pheasant anyway?”

Gloria stormed out and Alex immediately went after her, but not before telling Sherry not to name her dishes with the word mystery in it anymore.

Sherry was left alone in front of a meal good enough to feed four people. She slowly ate her share of the meal.

When she finished, she packed the rest and placed them inside their refrigerator. She wanted to send the meal to Nash but after seeing her uncle’s reaction she decided not to.

Sherry got back into her gamepod and logged back into Zectas.                               

* * * * * * 
Sierra got back online and when she opened her eyes, she was greeted by Adder.

“Welcome back, Sierra. Huh? What’s wrong? You looked upset?”

“It’s nothing. Something just came up at home. Anyway, how’s everything? Any updates?”

Adder frowned as he had plenty of sad information to tell Sierra.

“There certainly has been. Ichaival and Sharanga came back and they told me that Betul was in the same shape as Nisko.”

Sierra listened quietly and waited for Adder to continue.

“Betul used to be a large river-port village. Water Traders would drop by the village and drop their wares from Centeo and Coatl. Presently, they only have twenty fishermen left in the village to feed them. Water Trader’s ships would just pass by, because they fear the Brandals.”

“How many residents are left in Betul?”

“Sharanga counted them to be around sixty. She also said that there was no cemetery in the village, but there was a white building with the statue of the Gnome who founded the village.”

“I guess that means we still haven’t found which village it is. What are the other updates?”

“Next, we have falcon updates. Thyrsus’ falcon spotted the Brandals at Nisko. Thyr followed the bandits from a safe distance and was joined by Aya, Vijaya’s second falcon. It appears that the bandits were heading to Salah. I think they’re sticking to the same pattern and attacking the villages every other day. From what Thyrsus told me they only loot enough supplies to last them about two days. These Brandals have made these villages into their milking cows.”

Sierra wanted to take action, she was tired of hearing these bandits attacking the defenseless villagers.

“Have they just left for Salah? If we leave now we can get there before they do right?”

“Yes, but from what Thyrsus saw, there were at least twenty mounted bandits on black ctenosaurs.”

“What in the world is a black ctenosaur?”

Thyrsus got a stick and drew a sketch on the ground of a Brandal bandit riding a black ctenosaur.

“It looks something like this.”

“That looks like a giant iguana. How long do you think this monster is?”

Thyrsus answered.

“I’d guess about five feet in length? If you include its tail then nine feet, maybe?”

“That’s a really big scary looking lizard.”

“They’re fast as well, not as fast as Laernea and Gandiva’s stag moose but still faster than the Cavalry Knight’s dirus wolves.”

Sierra took a step back and thought that they were at a clear disadvantage.

“Adder, what’s the next phase of your plan? Eight versus twenty doesn’t sound like favorable odds.”

“Well, we’ll have the falcons follow them to their base, and then we’ll see just how many they really are.”

“Sounds like a good plan.”

The falcons that pursued the bandits were Thyr, Vij, and Aya. After Salah, the Brandals ransacked Betul.

They followed the Brandals’ rampage from a safe distance. When they were done aiding Betul, the Brandals followed the river northward.

Ten kilometers up the river, the bandits took a sharp left. If anyone had pursued them on the ground they wouldn’t have been able to follow the sharp turn.

Owing to the fact that the bandits had built movable shrubs that would swing when they pulled a lever that was made to look like another tree branch.

With the advantage of the falcons’ view. The three falcons were able to follow them when they took the tricky turn. However, Otaczac forest started to obstruct the falcons’ line of sight.

The three hunting birds dropped down and dove into the forest. They were used to flying through the thick branches.

Vij was avoiding a huge tree when an arrow winged her. A few seconds after, fast loud scratches headed to the direction where Vij had fallen.

Thyr and Aya swooped down and carefully picked their hurt comrade with their claws. The two falcons carried their injured friend to safety.

Two male Lioumerean lions on top of black ctenosaurs arrived and searched for the fallen bird.

“I know I shot it down here somewhere.”

“All I saw was you shooting your arrow at a branch.”

“I’m telling you. I shot down a strigidae owl.”

“Well, I’ll only believe you if we find it.”

The Lioumerean bandits spent the next five minutes looking around the area. When they found nothing the two of them decided to follow their group to their hideout.

“I told you, you shot a branch.”

“I swear I shot down a bird. I think I must have missed it by just an inch.”

The bandits voices started to fade as they were getting further and further away. Thyr left Vij and Aya behind while the he pursued the galloping bandits.

* * * * * * 
The moment Vij’s wings were hit by the arrow, Vijaya felt a twinge and reflexively asked Thyrsus what he was seeing.

“Vij has been hit by an arrow.”

The worried WoodElf immediately ran to the direction of her fallen falcon. Vijaya’s team mates blocked the exit before she had the chance to leave.

“No one stop me! I’m gonna save my friend even if it’s the last thing I do. Vij and Aya are more than just falcons to me. All of you get out of my way!”

Sharanga answered her sister calmy.

“When did we ever stop anyone from doing dangerous missions. Now, come on. We’re all going with you.”

Everybody was running as fast as they could towards Vij’s location. It was between Betul and the Brandals’ hideout.

It took them two hours before they reached the wounded falcon. Aya her twin falcon was diligently waiting for their master beside Vij.

Vijaya was in tears when she saw her two falcons. Although one of them was seriously injured at least they were both alive.

“Vij, don’t worry. I’m here now. Everything’s gonna be fine.”

The Huntress broke the arrow and carefully pulled it out. She quickly applied bandages and wrapped a small stick on Vij’s wings to keep it in place.

They left Vijaya to tend to her falcons while they followed Thyrsus’ directions as Thyr kept on the bandits trail.

Thirty minutes passed as they traveled on the bandits hidden path, when Sierra keened on her ‘Animal Instinct’ ability and noted that there was a hostile group up ahead.

Sierra raised her dominant Werebear claws and called her party to stop. Thyrsus confirmed that they were near the Brandal’s hideout.

Thyrsus’ eyes were white as he was sharing his falcon’s vision with the bandits’ hideout.

“It looks like an old ruined castle. Its area seems to be about eight hundred square meters and has heptagon shape. They’ve placed huge tree trunks on the fallen walls. They have one sentry tower on each corner of the wall. There’s also a prominent keep at the center of the castle. That must be where they store all their stolen goods.”

Sierra asked if he could see how many bandits he could see.

“From outside there are about seven Snipers, fourteen Barbarians, and four Priests. Thyr can’t see inside the castle. I can’t guess how many there are inside.”

Sierra tried to count the known members of the Brandals.

“If we consider that the bandits who pillaged the villages are different from the ones guarding their keep, then there are at least forty five of them in there. Even with the least possible count we can’t possibly beat them now. I suggest we use guerrilla warfare. Let’s find a suitable base camp near here and start setting up traps.”

Sierra contacted Vijaya and told her their chosen location of their new base camp. It was strategically located, a few kilometers from Betul, the Brandals hideout, and their hidden path towards it.

Sierra ordered for Adder, Sharur, and Thyrsus to start making multiple escape routes and other methods of traveling inside the forest. Vijaya, Ichaival, and Jinggu started building the interior of their fortified base.

They chose six large trees as their main posts and built defensive walls around them. There were platforms on top of the trees for the Hunters to attack from.

With her Werebear strength, Sierra provided the tree trunks and persistently worked on the exterior of their fortress.

Sharanga had a special task all on her own. She started working on traps specifically for the black ctenosaurs. Sierra ordered her to modify the traps that was originally for the Maneator.

Adder had been visiting Betul village daily, aside from building their escape routes and transport system. He wanted to see how the villagers were.

As the villagers of Betul were used to strangers brought by their past experiences with various traders, they were more welcoming when Adder visited them.

The fact that he brought food also helped him earn their trust. Adder found that they did not lose hope.

The Betulites believed that one day they will be freed from the Brandals. The one armed man kept reaffirming their beliefs by continuing to visit their village everyday.

Five days passed, and their fort along with other preparations were finally completed. Everyone gathered around to admire their architectural prowess.


Constructed: Otaczac Wooden Fort

  Built with the raw materials from Otaczac forest, this fortress is well camouflaged.

  Effects:
  * Increases defense by 50% when inside the fortress.
  * Increases range by 50% when attacking on sentry platforms.
  * Increases health restoration by 100% when resting inside the fortress.

            
With her Werebear claws, Sierra etched out the word Amitié on the front gate.

Adder stood beside Sierra and asked what that word meant.

“Oh, this means friendship. We’ve only met recently but I feel like I’ve known you guys for a long time.”

Ichaival opened the gates and said that he will conduct the grand tour of their wooden fort.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our home away from home. If you would notice the six main trees. These are our pillars that support the walls. There are also ladders on each of these pillars for us to climb onto the canopy platforms. I’d also like to acknowledge Sharanga, because she taught us an interlocking way to build the wall enhancing its defenses. Next let me tell you about this special feature. On top of the platform as well as on the center of our base we have an emer…”

Thyrsus abruptly interrupted Ichaival’s tour when he was alerted by Thyr that the Brandals have made their move.

“It’s time! The Brandals are here.”

Sierra nodded and issued the orders.

“Quickly! Strike team run to your positions. Defense team get ready to give ground support.”

Jinggu, Sharur, Ichaival, and Thyrsus climbed to the top of their wooden fortress and started running through the canopy platforms that they’ve built on top of the other trees.

Each member of the strike team jumped and grabbed a hold of their zip-line bar holders.

There was a network of well hidden mini zip-lines all over Otaczac forest. This gave the strike team the great mobility they needed in order to compete with the speed of the black ctenosaurs.

The strike team got into their well concealed positions in front of Betul. Thyrsus informed the rest of his team that the Brandals would arrive in ten minutes.

The defense team quickly followed and were stationed one kilometer behind the strike team. Sierra hoped that their strategy would work and the defense team won’t get to see any action.

Everybody was tense. They waited for the Brandals to arrive when suddenly Sierra received a call from Laernea.

Sierra canceled the call, but the Lioumerean kept on calling her again. Sierra finally answered her on the fifth call.

“Laernea, We’re all kind of busy right now. What’s so important that you have to call?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. You see. It’s about, Smoke. He doesn’t seem to be himself. It’s like he wants to destroy everything in his path.”

Sierra looked deeply troubled, and for a split second she forgot that the Brandals were coming.

“I’m sure he’s alright. If he wasn’t he would have told me. Anyway, I have to go. I’ll contact him when I have some free time.”

Sierra finished her call with Laernea. She needed to focus on the Brandals. She didn’t know what exactly was happening with Smoke, but she was sure that he could manage it.

Over their party channel, Thyrsus announced that the Brandals were in range. Immediately, Sharur and Jinggu launched their spiral piercing fire bolts and two of the bandits fell off their mounts.

The fallen bandits revealed their lifebars to be (85,916/91,416 HP) and (89,620/95,120 HP) respectively.

The raiding Brandals stopped on their tracks and did not proceed to enter Betul. They looked around their surroundings, craning their necks to get a 360 degree view of what happened.

Their leader wore an eye patch covering his right eye. He was a Human with two short swords on his back, a whip on his waist and multiple throwing knives attached on two belts worn from his shoulder to his waist.

“What was that? What happened?”

“Roubar and Roubado have fallen from their black ctenosaurs.”

The bandit leader went to his dismounted companions, took out his whip and whipped the two bandits, damaging them for 1,200 points each.

“Roubar! Roubado! I told you to stop playing around when we’re on a raid.”

“But, Canalha, we weren’t goofing off. Someone shot at us from the forest.”

Roubado pointed to where the fire bolts came from. Canalha quickly turned to the direction of the forest and took two piercing fire bolts to his chest.

Canalha flew off from his black ctenosaur and tumbled to the ground. The rest of the bandits quickly took out their swords and knives and made a protective circle around their leader.

Canalha, stood up, and took out the two bolts from his chest. His lifebar was at (173,208/185,000 HP).

“Cavalry Knights don’t use fire bolts. Boys! It looks like we finally have ourselves some resistance here. Alright, You four go into the forest and look for the source of these bolts. You two idiots, get back on your ctenosaurs.”

The bandit leader grabbed a hold of his own black ctenosaur and climbed back up.

“Aaaaaahhhh!”

THUD!

“Whooooohhaaaaah!”

THUD!

“What’s going ooooooohhooaaaannn!”

THUD!

“Waaaaahhh!”

THUD!

A bandit briskly reported that the four scouts sent to look inside the forest were caught in a sophisticated trap.

“How could they have fallen for a trap? All of us have high levels of ‘Detect Trap’ ability.”

Painful and agonizing screams were heard from the captured bandits as the rain of arrows and bolts kept on hitting them.

Canalha looked at the number of bolts and arrows and guessed that their attackers were no amateurs.

“Fall back. Retreat. I don’t want to risk getting trapped like those imbeciles.”

“But Canalha, your nephew, Patife was also captured.”

“Was he? I guess I’ll have to tell my sister, that he fought valiantly against a Cavalry Knight. Alright! Move out. Everyone return to the Keep.”

* * * * * * 
Using his falcon’s vision, Thyrsus saw that the Brandals were running away into their secret path.

“Sierra, we’ve managed to kill four of the bandits and the rest of them are retreating to their hideout. Ichaival and I are about to get the loot while Jinggu and Sharur will cover us.”

“That’s great news! I knew Sharanga’s spiked traps would work wonders.”

The brunette WoodElf smiled. Her cheeks and pointy ears turned bright red.

“Thanks for the compliment. I was actually inspired by your claws. I thought that the traps shouldn’t just hold them in place. It should also cause some damage over time. With those sharp spikes, giving them ‘bleeding’ statuses was easy.”

Vijaya gave her twin sister a high five.

“Great job, sis!”

Sierra commanded the strike team to return to their fort.

“We’ll have a friendly race to see which team gets home first. Let’s go, defense team!”

All of them were in high spirits. Their first guerrilla warfare was a great success. They only needed to wait for the next scheduled raid.

In the next two days, the residents of Fort Amitié were busy preparing for their next encounter with the Brandals.

* * * * * * 
It has been exactly a week since Smoke told Sierra about the finals of his Swordsman to Knight Tournament. Adder and the rest of the Hunters had left earlier for Betul.

All the Hunters except for Ichaival. He had left right after their first victory against the Brandals. He said that needed to buy something in Salah.

Sierra was alone on the ground floor of their fort while the OrkElves were watching from their sentry posts. She decided to give Smoke a call just before he fights at the finals of the Swordsman to Knight Tournament.

“…”

“I said I’m fine. Honestly. Anyway, how is your search for the village? Have you found the exit to the labyrinth?”

Sierra thought that Smoke was clearly not fine. She didn’t want to add to his problems, so she decided to tell him a little white lie.

“I’m still waiting for Adder’s report. You know how he likes to be thorough. I think we will find the exit in two days, worst case maybe four.”

“Don’t hurry on my account. I’m still trying to get the recommendation to enter the labyrinth as well. It looks like my original estimate for this quest was wrong.”

Sierra couldn’t agree more and not only on his part but on their search for the exit as well. Not to mention their self imposed secondary objective of wiping out the Brandals.

“I know! I had a gut feeling from the moment you told me that you expected us to be done in a week. Anyway, don’t worry about it too much. I’m still having fun on my end. I’m learning a lot of new things in my Werebear form. You know, just in case it will take us longer to break the curse.”

“That’s great. Not that you would be stuck in that form, but you getting better at your Werebear form. I hope you know what I meant.”

“Yeah, I do. Smoke, please talk to me if something is bothering you.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve really got it handled.”

“Alright, stay safe. I don’t want to hear you having any mental breakdowns. Take care!”

Sierra finished her call with Smoke. After hearing his voice, she felt that Smoke was still not okay. She stared at the sky when she heard Jinggu sound their alarm.

“The Brandals are coming! There are about thirty of them, and they also have four blanketed wagons with them. We still have about five minutes before they get here, but Sharur and I can already hit them from here.”

Sierra couldn’t understand how they could have found their hidden fortress and how they managed to get past Sharanga’s traps.

“Jinggu, Sharur, I want the two of you to escape right now. Find Adder in Betul and tell him to contact Smoke.”

The twin OrkElves stood their ground. Their mother had taught them to stand against evil no matter what the cost.

“I’m sorry, Sierra. We can’t follow those orders. We’re gonna protect you to our dying breaths.”

The OrkElves started hitting the bandits. They managed to knock two down and readied for their next round.

However, the Brandals were unfazed and pressed on towards their fort. Two more bandits were knocked off their mounts as another set of fire bolts came at the raiding scoundrels.

Sierra thought that she could by them some time by going outside the fort and confronting them head on. The Brandals were now merely a hundred meters away.

As fast as she could, Sierra opened the wooden gates, she rushed outside and let out her loudest roar. She unleashed her double slash attacks on the first black ctenosaurs that she met.

The mounted lizards had (97,123/110,000 HP). The other black ctenosaurs also took a swing at Sierra but only managed to do a damage of 700.

While black ctenosaurs’ riders used their swords and did a similar damage of 800. The Brandals were shocked at how low their damage was.

Sierra’s lifebar shown that she had (234,700/242,200 HP).

Canalha shouted on top of his lungs.

“Boys, don’t worry about your low damage. If all of us continue to hit her she’ll be dead in the next few minutes!”

The shocked Brandals quickly recovered after hearing their leader’s encouragement.

In a flash, Sierra was surrounded by Brandals. The OrkElves continued knocking them off their mounts but the bandits would simply get back on in only a few seconds.

Jinggu and Sharur looked at each other and nodded. From on top of their fort, both of them leapt at the same. They managed to land safely behind Sierra’s back.

“I told you guys to run away. I’ve got this.”

“We know that your tough and strong, but seriously. You can’t expect to win against this many opponents.”

Sierra focused on the enemies in front of Jinggu and Sharur and knocked the bandits back with her claws.

“I never said I expected to win.”

Sierra picked both of the OrkElves up and threw them inside the fort. Swiftly, she slashed the rope that was holding the fort gates open. The gates immediately closed.

Relieved that the Range Siegers were now safe inside the fort, Sierra turned to face the Brandals once more. As she turned she saw the blanketed wagons unveiled.

The wagons were actually catapults primed with gigantic barrels with a burning fuse on top. The four catapults were all released simultaneously.

The barrels flew past Sierra’s head and went directly inside their wooden fort. The four barrels caused a massive explosion and blew their fort apart from the inside.

Sierra was blown away by the huge blast and damaged her severely. Her lifebar displayed (159,700/242,200 HP). She was gravely injured but she worried more for the Orkelves, their lives were only at 80,000 HP.

The red Werebear was down on the ground and was faced against Canalha and the rest of the raiding Brandals, who were only a few feet away from her.

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