The ability to feel one was being watched was pseudoscience at best back on Earth, but since coming to this world that same ability was simply good practice. Even if he couldn’t pick out where someone might be, John’s instincts told him there was something off about the surroundings. That had hardly changed as they moved through the Darklands, but John was fairly certain it wasn’t the same sets of eyes.
So far, nobody had taken the effort to inhibit their movements. That was the logical choice, as they were marching with an army sufficient to take down a major sect. If they didn’t appear to be heading towards those on the way, why would they sacrifice themselves? The primary concern was whether they would stay out of the conflict or attempt some sort of flanking maneuver. The route had been planned to avoid those most sympathetic to the Society of Midnight, but their information was likely incomplete.
The occasional monster attacks were comforting. Otherwise John might have thought things were going too well. Perhaps it wasn’t unbelievable that they could strike deep into the Darklands with an army of several hundred- the Society of Midnight had stolen into Marble County with a sizable group as well- but they were a bit harder to conceal.
Over the course of the next day the feeling of being watched changed from a constant background sense to a blatant series of squads standing along the road, watching them. They continued onward, but John had the feeling they would encounter trouble soon enough. John hadn’t had the chance to encounter them before, but based on the hints he was picking up they should be the Serpent Watchers.
Two hours later, they spotted an army as they crested a rise. It was impossible to say for sure if it matched theirs, but it was at least powerful enough that they could not ignore it. But the situation was not as bad as it might have been. After all, though they were blocking the road… it was out in the open instead of an ambush. Furthermore, there was an open stretch of land where there were at best sparse hiding spots, where a woman stood flanked by two guards. If that wasn’t an invitation, John didn’t know what one was.
“Aydan, you come with us,” John said as he walked forward. Obviously Matayal was the other part of ‘us’. While the Tenebach clan was the core of this whole conflict, the Brandle clan was tied inextricably to their fate… and he wouldn’t want to go anywhere without her support regardless. He was the leader here because someone needed to be able to give orders in a combat scenario, but when given time they would jointly make decisions.
The woman waiting for them had long hair formed into dreadlocks that dangled down past her waist. Though her mouth smiled, her eyes didn’t. “Travelers.” She nodded her head in acknowledgment. John returned the basic gesture. “What are you doing on these roads?”
“It is as you have said. Traveling. Are the roads not open to all?”
“They are, as long as the proper taxes are paid.”
“I’m certain the taxes will be quite reasonable. If so, we would gladly pay, if you have the authority to collect. Might I ask who you are?”
“Idartha. Head of the Serpent Watchers. The taxes from Kurgate go to us to maintain the roads and their safety, but it seems you have avoided the city merely for the purpose of avoiding our very reasonable taxes.”
John could feel his head begin to ache. Going into or through the city wouldn’t have been a good move, but now going around it was an issue as well. “We didn’t wish to raise a fuss… given our company.”
“Perhaps… but avoiding taxes comes with certain penalties. If those who refuse to pay are merely charged the same as everyone else when they are caught, it does no one justice to follow the rules.”
“So you wish to double the road tax? Triple?” A few coins per person wasn’t that much to begin with. John felt there would be more, to justify rousing such a large group.
“I’m afraid we can’t let you off so easily. You could be smuggling anything through here. We require a tenth of everything you carry… equipment included.”
At that outrageous demand, things could have easily turned into a battle. But John had the feeling Idartha wasn’t interested in that either. Even if they won, the Serpent Watchers would take heavy casualties. It was to be a negotiation… something Matayal would perform better with. He looked to her.
“That is far more than even the most extreme penalty would justify. Standard merchants would pay perhaps one part in ten for proper trade goods, and we carry none of them,” Matayal began.
Idartha’s smile grew, but became no more real. “In that case, you must be planning to return with something of great value. We would charge the same at that time.”
“It’s too much… almost tantamount to banditry,” Matayal commented. “Perhaps we might bear to part with five percent of what we acquire… and of course the equipment we now carry would not be included in that figure.”
Idartha’s brow furrowed, “We might go as low as eight.”
“Six percent… and twice that for local coinage,” Matayal said firmly. The second part was a tantalizing offer- it would have to be melted down or exchanged at lower margins if they brought Darklands coins back to the Stone Conglomerate… but the locals of course could make better use of it.
“That would be acceptable. Be aware we will be thoroughly inspecting your wares… and will be quite perturbed if you renege on the deal for any reason. We will also remind you that other routes aren’t nearly so safe, but if you abide by our rules you can expect the same protection as others.”
So she knew or had guessed that they had chosen the route because there were fewer people sympathetic to the Society of Midnight. There was also some implication that she might deter anyone attempting to cause trouble as they left if they returned properly. John and Matayal could exchange more than enough with just a glance. “We accept that proposal,” John agreed. It would cut into their profits- some of which would be used to recover from whatever losses they had- but avoiding a conflict here was more valuable. John wasn’t sure if the Serpent Watchers would actually slow anyone chasing after them, but as long as they did not delay them overly long on their way out they could afford to give up some loot. That wasn’t their primary goal, after all- even if it was necessary to maintain their status or continue their growth.
Astoundingly, they made their way close to the territory of the Shadow Wolf clan without further incident. Planning and a rapid approach would no doubt be part of that, but luck also had to be a factor. Cultivators were always eager to get into a scuffle. Then again, walking around with a big army was a decent deterrent.
Now came the moment where they would run into the first real resistance. The Shadow Wolf clan couldn’t be ignored, nor was it likely they could be swayed from supporting the Society of Midnight. Hopefully they would be the only allies for the fight, but that would depend on how well they had done keeping the attack on the down low. Unless the Society of Midnight had suddenly become incapable they should at least know that something was planned, but whether they knew the attack was already on the way was something else. More importantly, it was whether they’d had enough time to call back all of their forces from various missions. It was anticipated that they would be able to beat the Society of Midnight at full force, but dealing with less of their forces would be optimal.
There was no warning before the attacks began- not that anyone expected otherwise. Wolves sprang from the nearby wolves, cultivators riding atop them. They were swift, attacking and retreated in the same motion. The army had already been aware of the tactics they would face, but it was impossible to have every section of their army perfectly on watch and with the strongest forces. Some were lost, though they inflicted casualties in return. On the other hand, one poor squad charged close to Steve and Yustina. They technically got away, but John wasn’t sure how long they would last as they charged off into the woods on fire.
It was a fortunate thing that the local trees were infused with darkness, as well as being quite fresh. They didn’t catch fire easily, so the entire landscape didn’t burn. That might have been technically good for the army, but if it spread to affect nearby clans and sects they would be less likely to remain neutral.
Only sparse attacks had been made on the front of the marching order- a few handfuls of arrows directed at the leading group. John didn’t even have to do anything, but instead relied on Matayal’s water barrier to protect them both.
After the first attack, John felt Ciaritzal growing restless inside him. “Something wrong? Maybe to do with the wolves?” John pondered, “I don’t suppose they’re relatives of yours?”
“Them?” the ephemeral voice of Ciaritzal spoke from inside him. “Laugable. They are at best similar in appearance, but their substance is weak.”
That was a rather comical thing to hear of a being that was more spirit than physical form, but perhaps that was what he meant. “They did seem quite… physical.”
“And killable. Were the circumstances different… I might feast on a few.”
“They do seem to have some rather nicely condensed energy,” John admitted. He wasn’t going to eat a wolf himself though. Or at least he wouldn’t be the first to suggest it.
Matayal glanced over at John, potentially only hearing his side of the conversation- but she seemed to understand.
The army continued, ready at any moment for more skirmishes. The Golden Tomb Guardians found themselves disadvantaged in such situations- the swiftest would have a greater advantage in a battle between light and darkness- but the Mulyani clan’s air cultivators swiftly repositioned themselves to shore up any weak points in the marching lines. Kusuma herself chased after squads that got near her, her movements on foot matching the impressively fast wolves. John could have chased after them as well, but not with the same level of confidence. Kusuma returned unscathed, though she couldn’t afford to continuously do the same. Recovering energy for those on the other side of the elemental spectrum would be a more difficult task.
Though the Order of the Amber Heart was unable to force anyone to attack them, as they distributed themselves among the ranks they were able to block for others. Darkness against earth, neither had an advantage of any sort- and earth was quite good on the defensive. Not great for chasing, but they could at least repel an attack.
The army didn’t intend to just put up with the attacks forever. They were making their way towards the heart of the Shadow Wolf clan, where they would have to mount a proper defense… or give up their structures and anything they couldn’t carry away with them. Personally John hoped they would take a stand there, as it would be easier to fight them on the defensive.
Before that, they had to set up camp for the night. They didn’t just pitch tents- they were in enemy territory. John had vague ideas of old generals who put up fortifications at the end of every day’s march… and the Order of the Amber heart was best able to fulfill that role. Everyone chopped down some nearby trees to form a palisade, but trenches dug by earth cultivators were quite impressive. Their temporary fortifications wouldn’t make them immune to assault, but it would make it more difficult for skirmishers to get in and out of the encampment. If they were planning to stay for longer perhaps the water cultivators could have filled the surrounding trench with water… but that was a much more weighty effort than simply shuffling around some dirt.
In the morning, they would begin their assault- they couldn’t afford to wait around and give their enemies more time to prepare. John had trouble sleeping, not because he was afraid of battle… but because the anticipation was worse than the act itself. He also couldn’t help but think of how much his life had changed to find himself at the head of an army… even if by numerical standards it was a rather small one.