Rheyk quietly awoke as the first rays of yellow sunshine filtered through the softly shaded windows. The only sound of the morning was the stillness of it, save for the sounds of his breathing and the light pulsing of his heart in his ears. The room was as empty as he had remembered it before slipping off to sleep the night before, mostly consisting of four walls, a door, a washbasin, a rather generous if plain bed, and the windows with white sashes that filtered in the sunlight. His belongings were stashed in the corner as he had left them, the majority of them being in his bag, save for his armor and weaponry, which were piled neatly nearby. He sat up on the edge of his bed, remaining otherwise still for a moment only breathing in slowly, and breathing out again. Breathe in, and release. After a moment of this, he stood up and quietly stretched himself as he headed to the washbasin to clean off the grime from his face. He had just come back from a several day trip through the desert with a new set of volunteers. Fortunately, they all were already militarily trained, so the only aspect they would need to master was coordination with this particular group of fighters. That would be today’s goal – time was paramount. At any moment, word would reach them of northerners moving in, and they would have to move to deter them. They could not afford to not be at least somewhat prepared for that.

 With a quiet, tired, sigh, Rheyk finished washing his face and looked at himself in the mirror – worn and obscuring as the image might have been. His sharp, gaunt face looked back at him with bright pools of sapphire. His sandy fur was short, yet somewhat thick, a pair of ebony horns curving out of the top, back part of his head. Rheyk moved from the washbasin, breaking his eyes away from the slightly grotesque apparition the mirror gave him for a reflection as he crossed the room to his belongings. He carefully inspected each piece of his armor, before he secured them to himself properly, leaving no potential problem to escape his eyes. While he wasn’t expecting to go into battle today, he always made a point of putting on his armor as if he were. After making sure his armor was properly secured, he grabbed his bow, a rare artifact made by one of the monks in the mountains and given to him as a gift of his coming of age, made from one of the Eltus Plants in the Lyvank Mountains. Once he had slung the wooden bow and a quiver of metal arrows over his back, he took his daggers, short and slightly carved in the blade, and placed them on his waist before securing them for easy access if needed. Finally, he took up his helm, and then placed it on his head, before he turned back to the mirror to look at himself in the reflective, if imperfect, material.

Six months. Six months today since my simple life was turned on itself, and I was cast away from the mountains of my home. Six months since I have drunk of the cool, fresh waters of the river, six months since I have seen the green that was the joy of my heart. Six months, and instead of the greenery of the forests, I now wade through the red of death and battle. Why must my path take me from the greenery and into the deserts? Why must I carry the burdens of others upon my backs? Why?

He took a deep breath before letting out a small sigh. The questions were pointless. They were always pointless. Asking them was the way towards madness, and yet he could not stop asking them, day after day. He grunted. No matter what the questions were, he could see where his path led for now, and he would follow it to the very end, asking questions all the while and keeping his eyes open. That was the best he could do, could he not?

 He turned a final time from the mirror, took up his bag, and made his way out of the room where he had spent the night.

Downstairs was the tavern – the same tavern where he and three others had their fateful meeting and had set on this endeavor to protect those who could not protect themselves from the northern aggression. The tavern was as worn and rough around the edges as he had remembered it, and it seemed even more boisterous and full of life than usual, full of both sergals and agudners. Since the north had waged its campaign against his kind, killing those who would oppose their general Rain and start a resistance force and enslaving the rest, many had fled Laono to come to Gold Ring, the city that they had once built long, long ago. It gave him the chance to blend in further, and even get some news on the northerners’ movements. Today, however, he was reticent, merely nodding his head as some of the patrons quietly greeted him in caution for any probing ears. He made his way out of the tavern and down into the labyrinthine neighborhood nearby. He took the winding and hopelessly confusing streets by memory, each turn carefully remembered and executed swiftly to ensure that nobody could have followed him there. He had no delusions about Rain’s ignorance of his band of fighters, but he also knew nonetheless that if the group were to stay alive, their meeting places could never be allowed to be found, much less infiltrated. Once he had found the residence he was seeking out, he gave two short knocks, and then two long knocks after a few seconds’ pause, followed immediately by two more quick knocks. There was a ten or fifteen seconds’ delay before the door was opened. An unarmored agudner woman opened the door with a silent nod of greeting, sweeping herself and door alike to the side to let Rheyk pass inside, before closing and securing it quickly. “Your friends are waiting further inside,” she said shortly, yet politely, deliberately limiting her conversation with the armed agudner.

 Rheyk nodded his head quietly in reply, with a reserved, “thank you,” all but murmured, as he quickly made his way through the house to the courtyard in the back, where a dozen or so individuals were gathered, all armed. He quietly nodded to them, before closing the back door to the house behind him. “What news for today?” he asked simply, wasting no time on pleasantries nor banter.

 “The north is reportedly starting to sweep through the Sailzane desert as we speak. It is only an expeditionary force, so we have been told, but it is looking more and more likely that they will attempt to invade the south through the desert. In terms for our concerns, there are three villages in their way – Arbristhene, Eastwater, and Southern Crossing.”

Rheyk resisted the urge to curse. Three villages? “Which one will be expected to be hit first?” he asked the person who had replied to him – a southern Sergal male named Anonn.

 “Arbristhene is the most likely candidate,” replied Anonn. “It’s the most western, but it is the shortest of the three from hostile territory. It’s a day’s travel less from Colthlan than the other two areas, and the route is almost entirely wooded, save the last three leagues of desert.”

Rheyk nodded his head in affirmation, clearly not pleased to hear this. “How many are in Arbristhene?”

“Approximately eleven hundred,” another agudner replied. “According to our intelligence estimates.”

Rheyk nodded quietly again, his face twisted in thought. “Alright. We’ll head for Arbristhene, and hope that is where Rain decided to strike first.” He then turned to the others. “Call up your units. We need to move immediately.”

With that, he left the others to their tasks, as he moved to get to their rendezvous point well outside of the Gold Ring.

Following that meeting and the marshaling of all the volunteers, some scant forty individuals who were mainly of the sergal variety, there was three days’ worth of trekking through the desert towards the northwestern part of the Sailzane desert towards Arbristene. It was a miserable time, between the oppressive heat thanks to the sun on the sand and the sometimes ferocious winds that kicked up blankets of sand that got in their eyes, noses, mouths, ears, and most infuriatingly, their fur. Many of them, including Rheyk were used to this, and had covered their faces to minimize the agitation, but there were those who were not so well prepared and suffered through as a result. The only comment about that Rheyk had about that was, “make sure you have everything you need for next time – and in the meantime, learn to live with the consequences of not being prepared.”

The nights were just as uncomfortable as the days. Without the sun to keep everything warm, the temperatures dropped quickly at night. Even with the thick sleeping bags they had packed, they had to huddle close to one another, rather like a herd, in order to keep from contracting hypothermia. When it was someone’s shift to keep watch, it was almost torture to make the rounds, alone and shivering, with a single thought: please let this end so I can go back to the warmth of the others. It was, particularly for those who were used to the warm days of the desert and little else, a discomfort. But fortunately, these volunteers were once in the army, and were known for being tough bastards. Not once did someone complain about the temperatures, nor the nearly madman’s pace they were taking by day. By the third day, it was decided they were simply not moving quickly enough and decided to keep going through the night. It was slow, cold progress, and the only way that they could even locate one another was by the darkened silhouettes that blotted out the wild constellations along the horizons, among the gentle dunes of the western Sailzane.

The End

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