They entered into Lord Mingdale’s study after another walk through the garden and castle interior. Ares had no sense of which direction he was going, through the many hallways, but his proximity map was dutifully mapping everything down for him.
The room was circular and lined with cases of beautifully bound books in many differing sizes. The ceiling was a dome, painted with a variety of pictures – mostly of animals, but a few of tall elven hunters. At the room’s very centre, an ornate master desk with gilded legs several inlets of precious stones commanded the attention of everyone who entered. The lord himself, of course, was seated behind the desk, looking over several pieces of parchment, and what appeared to be a big map. The last, in particular, caught Ares’ attention.
The raven-haired lord made no move to recognize them as he, Seila, master Baek and Izzy entered. Cassius had excused himself, claiming other duties demanded his time.
Confidently, Seila strode up before the desk, where she knelt down on both knees and put two fingers to her lips, then her forehead and finally her chest. “Ranneh’s light upon you, Father.”
She spoke so meekly, almost subserviently, that Ares had a hard time recognizing the girl. When she had been in her father’s company before, she had displayed none of this.
Lord Mingdale, without looking at his daughter, put two fingers to his own lips and forehead, but not to his chest. Instead, he turned his fingers towards Seila and said, “Upon you as well, Seila. Ancestor’s preserve you.”
Finally he put down the paper he had looking at, and turned his attention fully on Seila and her entourage.
“Master Baek. I trust you have found your work satisfies our agreement?”
The dwarf looked a little taken aback by the attention, seeing as Seila was still kneeling before her father. “Uhm, yes, Milord, very pleased. I have gained great insights by working on… Ares, here.”
The lord’s dark eyes turned to Ares, and he felt the careful scrutiny the lord vested upon him. “Is that so… Ares, you say. Is that what you call yourself, Construct?”
“Yes,” he answered, succinctly. No reason to embarrass himself with poor speech in front of this man.
“You will not address my father so casually, Construct,” Seila suddenly thundered, her attention still on her father, “You will kneel in his presence!”
Compelled by her order, Ares bit down on his anger and fell to one knee before Lord Mingale. He felt a tinge of satisfaction coming from his mistress, and understood.
She wants to show him how well she commands me…
His understanding, however, did nothing to diminish the resulting anger from this realization. The seething sea within churned, and he clenched his fists. To the side, Izzy’s eyes widened, and she began looking from him to Seila and back again.
“That is quite enough, Seila,” said Lord Mingdale, signalling her to rise, “This construct is not a mere object, but a relic of our ancestral keepers. To show disrespect to it, is to show disrespect to the Old Ones.”
Seila shivered as she rose, and she quickly urged Ares to rise as well. “I meant no such offence, Father.”
“I know,” he said calmly, then spoke to Ares once more, “You name yourself Ares, and I shall oblige you. As will my daughter. She may be headstrong, but she has a good heart, I ask that you overlook her shortcomings and protect to the best of your ability, Ares.”
With this, he gave Ares a slight bow of his head. Just enough to show respect.
“Father!” Seila exclaimed, completely befuddled at this turn of events.
Ares had no idea how to respond to this. His very short interaction told him this was a man of his word. Could he be any less?
“I protect,” he said, sighing inwardly. He had promised, afterall.
“Thank you,” said Lord Mingdale, straightening again and stopping his daughter’s objections with a wave of his hand.
“Now, the reason I called you here, Seila, is because I have received a message from Archeon Palander.”
This made her instantly forget what had just happened, and Ares could sense her excitement from their bond.
“Will he be here soon? How soon?”
Lord Mingdale leaned back and studied his daughter closely before he said, “He will not be here at all. He has been called to the Merhall Pass to reinforce Stalemate forces.”
As wild as her excitement had been, as deep was her disappointment from this news.
“The Stalemate?” Master Baek asked from the side, “The Empire is finally moving then, Milord?”
Lord Mingdale nodded, and cleared the map in front of him from. “Daily reports are coming in of reinforcements arriving at Merhall, and scattered reports from inside the Empire even suggests a flanking force will attempt a forey through the Ammedian Forest.”
The map showed an oblong landmass, at the heart of which the Ammedian Forest was located. Lord Mingdale pointed to a mountain range to the west of the forest, separating the ‘Empire’ to the south from the ‘Kingdom of Ammedina’ to the North. In the middle of the range ‘Merhall Pass’ was clearly marked. He then followed the range back into the forest, indicating the route imperial forces would have to take to circumvent the steep mountains. Right next to the forest, on the Northen side of the range, ‘Mingdale Valley’ was clearly marked.
“Hmm…” The dwarf closed in and studied the map. From one his many pockets he drew out a pipe, stuffed and lit it, then took a deep draw. “Going through the forest will cost them time and men. Small parties may go through unnoticed, but an army?” The dwarf shook his head, leaving the implications open.
“Indeed,” Lord Mingdale answered, “But the Empire has plenty of both. A feint at the pass, with a flanking force circumventing our defenses leaves the both Al Mendor and the Capitol vulnerable. If Mingdale Valley falls, then our forces at the pass will either have to retreat, leaving the pass to imperial forces; or watch as an imperial army lays siege to our most important cities.”
“So, you cannot fall,” grumbled the dwarf, stepping back and clapping Ares on the arm, “Good thing you’ve got a secret weapon, then.”
Lord Mingdale turned his gaze on Ares, his face still as neutral as ever.
“Yes, which brings me to the second point,” he said, lacing his fingers in front of him. “With Archeon Palander deployed at Merhall Pass, I have no one who can teach you battle magic, Seila. This means you are more of a liability in a war, than an asset.”
“No, Father! I will learn, even if I must do so on my own.”
“Out of the question. Mana is dangerous, Seila, even for the well-trained it can be deadly if a single mistake is made. The minor exercises you can do now are a pittance compared to the true force a battlemage must wield. You will make no attempt to train beyond the instructions Archeon Palander has already given you, understood?!”
The proud girl bowed her head and said, “I understand, Father.”
Lord Mingdale’s stern expression softened. He rose and stepped around the desk, putting his hand gently on his daughter’s cheek. “Seila, my heart’s flower, I cannot lose you. You are all that remains of a proud family, and all I have left of your mother’s love. Please forgive me.”
The sadness Ares felt through the bond was overwhelming. For a moment he felt the depths of his mistress’ pain, a sensation he had thought impossible for her.
The gentle caress ended, and the stern father returned. Lord Mingdale sat again and said, “With that being said, we must still make preparations. If we cannot depend on magic, then we must depend on the construct itself.”
Ares felt the weight of the Lord’s gaze settle on him again. “Construct Ares, you made a deal not to kill with my daughter. However, master Baek informs me that in order to grow, you must kill other living beings. Is this true?”
Hesitantly, Ares nodded. As far as he understood the system, this was true. Although there were clearly other ways to gain lifeforce, like eating the golden fruits, these did not appear common. The easiest way was indeed to kill.
“Presuming you intend to grow, how will you achieve this if you will not kill?”
This was a matter he had considered, but had no idea how to express. He looked over at Izzy, catching her attention as he pointed to Seila and said, “No kill.” He then pointed at master Baek and repeated himself.
I will not kill sentient beings again.
“Lord Mingdale,” Izzy said hesitantly, clearly trying to interpret Ares’ intentions, “I think he means he will not kill anyone like… us.”
“So, you will have no qualms with killing mindless beasts, then?”
Ares shook his head. He knew there were intelligent beasts out there, but the lesser creatures he would have no issue taking on.
“Very good. Seila, I am granting you special entry into the Hyemend Dungeons.”
His mistress suddenly perked up, excitement rising again. “Really, Father?”
“Yes. You will be allowed to bring four others with you. However, I am assigning Captain Kindon as your guide. He will have express orders not to interfere unless it is to save your lives, is that understood?”
“Yes, yes it is!” Seila was basically jumping up and down on the spot at this point. Ares was surprised by her sudden mood swing, which had an almost childlike flair.
Lord Mingdale signed a paper and handed it to Seila. She made to grab it, but he held onto it. “This is no game, Seila. War is coming, and we need to be prepared.”
“I understand, Father,” she said, gravely. He finally nodded and released the paper. “That will be all. Master Baek, will you stay behind, I have something I wish to discuss with you.”
“Of course Milord, although…” The dwarf trailed off, still puffing on his pipe, “If I may make a suggestion, My Lady..?”
Seila was reading the slip of paper closely, but stopped and looked up at the dwarf, “Yes, of course, master Baek. What is it?”
The dwarf took another puff at the pipe, then looked over at Izzy. “I’d suggest taking Izzy with ya. Although the construct is pretty sturdy, and has some fine tricks of its own, having an apprentice warsmith along is not a bad idea. I assure ya that she can handle herself, Milady.”
Seila looked to the little gnome, who was looking very embarrassed at her master’s praise.
“You can fight, apprentice Izzy?” Seila said, clearly sceptical.
Izzy looked like she wanted to hide in a hole. “I can, Milady. Lived on the street before master Baek took me in, I did. You don’t survive Al Mendor’s gutter if you can’t fight.”
“I see..” Seila was clearly not convinced, but in the end she smiled and said, “Very well, apprentice Izzy, I will be glad of your company.”
“It is decided, then,” Lord Mingdale said, clapping his hands, “Now, go make your preparations.”
Not long after, Ares walked through the outer bailey and out of the open gate into the city below. Since coming here, it was the first time he had the chance to see the surroundings outside the walls. Following his mistress with Izzy at her side, and trailed by three guards and Captain Kindon, he looked out on a good-sized town stretching out below.
The town was built up the side of a valley, with the fortress behind occupying the highest spot. The nearby houses were all well-built – in good condition and size. Lower, he could even see from here how the quality and size of the houses turned poorer the further away they were, until only small shacks were visible at the deepest levels.
The road up to the fortress was a series of switchbacks, splitting the town even more clearly into districts. Several layers of smaller fortifications would make the climb up to the top a living hell for any army attempting to conquer this place.
On the far side of the valley, above the opposite slope, Ares could see the colorful treetops of a forest. Both the map he had just looked at, and experience, told him this was the forest of Ammedia.
I wonder how Alastor is doing.
Hopefully, the daemon was still alive, and had found his way out that whole mess. Ares knew that at least one of those he had trapped with [Final Discharge] had survived, but had no way of telling who… or what.
Before they had left, Seila had picked out runners and asked them to take messages into the city. Now they were walking down the switchbacks towards the closest district, where a major plaza made for a good market place.
Rounding the first bend, passing the most majestic of the manors on the heights, they arrived to the clamor of a prosperous town. Stands were lined up across the plaza in front of the houses, flanking the open space on three sides. At the far end of the plaza, an overlook made for a magnificent view over the valley.
They passed people in a chaotic blend of features. To Ares’s eye it looked as if no two people were exactly alike. A man with the head of a bear, a woman with huge fish-eyes swivelling about; there were even some with insectoid carapace or crab-like claws.
The sights were so confusing, he found himself turning his head back and forth in order to take it all in. The curiosity he displayed was often returned, when others noticed the small group passing through. Shouts to ‘Mingdale, long live House Mingdale’ or ‘Lady Seila, the holy Lady Seila!’ could be heard, and Seila rewarded all onlookers with a beatific smile and the occasional handwave.
Ares felt genuine warmth emanating from her, as she responded to the praises of her people. The girl was arrogant, yes, but she cared for her people.
Things are not always what they seem, he thought to himself, although he felt no inclination to like his mistress, personally. He could respect her, without liking her.
They walked across the plaza, towards the largest building around: a massive three story construction with a sign of a weird, squat creature dancing while swinging a gaudy hat around. The words beneath the image indicated this to be the ‘Dancing Goblin’.
The creature was nothing like the goblins Ares was familiar with, but he chalked it up to something lost in translation.
They entered into what appeared to be the common room of a tavern, and were immediately greeted by a lady with the lower half of a snake. Her gaze was razor sharp, but her tone mild as honey when she welcomed them. “Lady Seila, it is an honor to have your patronage. What can my poor establishment offer you on this fine day?”
Seila bestowed the snake-woman with her most graceful smile and said, “Mistress Alahir, I would like a private dining room, if you please. I will be expecting company shortly.”
“Of course, My lady,” Mistress Alahir bowed, while her tail slithered behind her, “I will prepare my finest room. Please follow me.”