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The Flames of Thotus: Dreams

5. Omens

The war cries were deafening in Termus' ears, his vision still blurry as he unsheathed his sword. The dream just moments before had not fully left his mind, and his senses were still fluctuating rapidly. Gnove helped him stabilize himself against the back of the cart. All around him were grey and black painted men, a tipped wagon lay, destroyed, just behind his own. Its tarp was torn to shreds and weapons wedged themselves deep within the wood, disfiguring the lumber into splinters and jagged pieces. He managed to finally stand to his feet, albeit very sloppily as he collected himself.

"Wait, what's happening again?" He asked, unwrapping his arm from his brother's shoulders.

"Get ahold of yourself!" Gnove squeezed on both his arms and shook him. "Some fucking mountain tribe ambushed us."

They were a mountain tribe? Termus couldn't think straight, his brain still slow to process the information around him. Why did his Cold Day have to happen right before an ambush? He thought.

"I need to go find Polly! He might be in trouble." his brother said, wiping blood from his cheek and darting off before Termus could say another word. A rush of composure washed over him as he squeezed the hilt of his sword and looked out from the road. I need to focus, he thought.

The sky was pitch black and overcast, covering that familiar yellow glow from the Ring. He couldn't see a thing past the road but darkness, the faint silhouette of jagged trees peering back at him. What would be the best thing to do? He asked himself. It would be stupid to rush out there with this obnoxiously bright cloak on, they could easily surround me and I wouldn't even notice...At least not with that paint they're wearing. Dammit all.

He couldn't think straight. He could feel the lack of sleep getting to his head. It didn't matter that it was only one dream, one night, it was always enough to make him feel as if he lost weeks of sleep at a time. He had read about sleep deprivation in his books plenty of times, and he knew the signs of it all too well. In fact, he was reading one of them in a library in Handil once, while this really cute maiden sat across from him, allowing their eyes to meet every few seconds, only to smile coyly and tuck her head back into her book. Wait, what the hell was he thinking about again? "Shit," he said aloud. "Get ahold of yourself."

"Yai-ya-yai-yaaaaa!" a feral voice shrieked.

Termus had no time to react before he was knocked clean off of his feet and pinned viciously to the ground, the bloodthirsty eyes of a madman staring back at him. His gritted teeth were sharp nails, his breath smelling like that of a predator's after a fresh kill. Why didn't he have a weapon? The man opened his mouth, breath of decay seeped out as the grotesque orifice grew wider and wider. Is he unhinging his jaw?

He struggled to break free, thrashing his knees upward to force the beast off of him. With only one of his hands free, he definitely wouldn't be able to budge his assailant. The savage yanked him by the hair, pulling his head to one side. What the hell is he doing? Uttering some guttural, incomprehensible words, the man lunged forward and sunk all of his pointed teeth into Termus' collar bone, biting down with an audible crunch.

He screamed out in seething torment. He could feel his bone shift in his body, every nerve pulsating, as the man grinded every fang back and forth against his collar. Termus gritted his teeth to fight the pain and used his free hand to grab that smooth silver handle that lay in his pocket. He pulled it out and tried to aim it upward.

BANG! The gun fired, immediately flying from his hand and onto the ground from the force. The man twitched for a second then fell limp, heavily sinking the teeth further into his collar.

"RAAAAAHHH!!!" Termus yelled as he mustered just enough force to dislodge the jaw from his neck and tried to shove the body off of him. It was heavy, he noticed. He felt the sweaty paint rubbing off on him as the man slid off of him and crashed the ground with a thud. Now free from the assailant, he scrambled backwards a few feet, leaning his back and shoulders against the wagon wheel, eyes wide with fear and adrenaline.

"Cannibals? Who the hell are these guys," he said aloud, still struggling to catch his breath. He noticed the gun sitting a few feet forward on the ground. "Wow...that thing saved my life."

Termus could hear the footfalls all around him, the ground crunching beneath them. They were getting louder but he still couldn't see any further than the caravan wagons. He could hear the clanging of swords and screams all around him, some of his fellow comrades and some of savages, but he was blind to what was happening out there.

"Ki-ki-kyah!!" A voice uttered harshly.

What the hell do I do now? He thought. I can hardly repress this pain and I have more of them to deal with. The footsteps grew more rapid as the group rushed. I can't move, he thought. Where the hell is everyone?

"Alright, do it now!" A familiar voice called from the darkness.

"Got it!" Another voice replied.

The footsteps stopped and all Termus heard was a collective scream from out in front of him. At least five different voices bellowed out in pure agony, followed by the loud thud of bodies hitting the ground. But the voices didn't stop. The screeches echoed against the mountains and continued for what seemed like hours.

"Termus! You okay over there?"

"Gnove, is that you?" He said in between winces of searing pain.

The two boys were standing over him now, helping him to his feet. Gnove had a small lantern tied to his belt, his white cloak glimmering shiny red spatters of blood against the firelight. The other boy was...

"Wait, Polly?" Termus said, shoving them both off of him. "You two took those guys down?"

"Yeah!" Polly said, jumping up and down. "It was amazing! They didn't even know what hit 'em! Yep, yep, Gnove gave me some of his plant oils. They sure did the trick!"

Termus shook his head. "Wait, what do you mean?"

He could see Gnove's white teeth smiling widely in the darkness. "I had some of my new poisons ready just in case. Polly is actually damn good with that dagger of his! I poured some of the poisoned oil onto our daggers and we both went to town. Not to toot my own horn or anything but they didn't even see us!"

"So you killed them all?" Termus asked.

"Killed them? No, we just cut them a little. The poison just induces paralysis and an extreme state of pain. They'll be back to normal in a few hours. I wasn't expecting to have a fight this quick but it was a good chance to test my new mixtures out. That was fun!"

"I killed one..." Termus said, pointing to the body a next to him. The severity of what he did was just now washing over him. He just took a life...

"Yeah...I see that," Gnove said. "I'm assuming he was attacking you, so I guess it was unavoidable. I'm glad to see you're unharmed though."

"Yeah, but still, I just took someone else's..." Wait, unharmed? Couldn't they see the gnashing bitemarks he had on his neck? "I NEED A DOCTOR!" He said. "Can't you see my neck? The pain hasn't gotten any better, you know."

Polly lifted his cap and scanned his neck back and forth, poking and prodding with his finger. Finally, he backed away, looked at Gnove and shrugged his shoulders.

"Nope, nope, there's nothing there."

"Yeah, I don't see anything," Gove said. "What exactly did you say happened?"

Termus felt his hands clench into fists. "Are you kidding me? The guy I killed tackled me. He lunged at me and unhinged his jaw...then he bit down on my neck and grinded all twenty of his fangs into me. They're fucking cannibals."

"Wait, he did WHAT?" Polly said, leaning forward slightly. "You're saying he has a mouthful of fangs?"

Gnove looked bewildered. "What kind of weapon was he using?"

Termus felt his frustration boiling under the surface of his skin. "He didn't have a weapon. I told you, he just used his teeth."

Gnove quickly darted around Termus to examine the body. He kicked it violently first before leaning in and grabbing its jaw. "Rule number twenty-three, Polly, always make sure they won't jump out and scare you." He pried its mouth open with his fingers. "Ew..." He said. "What a foul stench. This guy probably hasn't cleaned his teeth a day in his life. But look..." He flopped its head to where Termus could see it, still keeping his fingers jammed into its mouth. "If that's what you call fangs, then I guess we're all monsters."

And sure enough, the teeth were flat, small and blunt. But that couldn't be right. He remembers getting bitten. The pain was absolutely excruciating, he couldn't have been imagining that. He slid his fingers around the wound on his neck, still feeling very faint tinges of pain. Pain, but no blood. He didn't even have a wound.

"But I know it happened...I felt it," Termus said. That's when he noticed the body gripping tightly to a small but sharp stone axe. When did he get that? He thought. He bent down to pick up the axe, feeling almost surreal as he examined it.

Was this because of my Cold Day? I've never experienced something this vivid before, he thought. It felt as if he were still dreaming, but actual physical pain had never been part of his dreams. This was real, and yet, it wasn't.

Termus shifted his gaze to Gnove, who was examining the wound in the man's chest. "What the hell caused this?" He asked, but Termus wasn't even listening.

"How did you guys fight in this utter darkness?" Termus blurted out, causing both Polly and Gnove to tilt their heads.

"What do you mean? It's not that dark out..." Gnove said, still running his hand over the open wound.

Termus didn't even say anything to defend himself this time but closed his eyes quickly in an attempt to readjust his senses. He opened them again and scanned the area, hoping that he wasn't losing his mind. But apparently, he was. The mountainside was relatively visible, the yellow glow from behind the clouds bathing the ground in a dim but noticeable gold hue.

How could he have a lapse in reality this bad? And at a time like this? He gawked at himself for a solid minute before awkwardly mumbling, "I'm sorry."

Gnove stood back up and walked over. "Sorry for what?"

"You guys had to come save me while I was apparently having a lapse in sanity."

Gnove lowered his head to meet Termus' eyes, and stared into them contemplatively, a whirlwind of thoughts surely running through his brother's mind. "Uh...Are you sure you're okay? Did you have a bad dream or somethi—" He abruptly stopped himself, his eyebrows raising. "Oh no."

Termus nodded slowly, feeling utterly ashamed of himself. He was supposed to be the protector, yet here he was, completely helpless. And in the end, he was saved by his naïve brother and his young friend.

Gnove tried saying something else, possibly trying to ask about it, but Termus wasn't even hearing him anymore. "Nevermind," he said, just trying to forget it. "Where is everyone else?"

"Oh yeah, they're just over that ridge," Polly said, pointing off in the distance. Polly had been strangely quiet for a while, perhaps realizing that he had no place in the conversation.

Hm... the boy has more character than I gave him credit for, Termus thought.

"Let's go find them, they might need our help," he said.

"I think we've all done enough for now," Gnove said, waving his hand in the direction of the wagon. "I don't think any of us got much sleep tonight, especially you, Term. I think we'd be better off if we just guard the wagon until the fight is over." He paused. "By the way, what was that giant hole in that tribesman's chest?"

"I had to hit him with that pistol thing we were given," Termus said haphazardly, still reeling in a mixture of regret and embarrassment.

Gnove's eyes lit up. "Woah! That little things packs that much of a punch?"

"Yeah," Termus said. "Killed him instantly." He didn't know why he was feeling so apathetic toward the fact that he just killed someone. He knew it should weigh heavily on him, at least from the stories that he was told. Maybe it's just because he didn't know the man and to him, it was just a savage. Either way, I guess I'm a killer now, he thought.

The sun was starting to peek between two mountains. Termus had climbed up into the wagon and laid down on the long, empty bench while the other two stood guard outside. He had hoped that he could fall back asleep but as he laid there, the realization that sleep wasn't even a remote possibility right now slowly creeped through up his spine.

Termus hated himself. Why was I so useless? he thought. It wasn't even that I was hesitant or afraid to fight. I just couldn't focus or think. But it's never been this bad before. Was it because I was woken up halfway through the dream? Dammit all, I need to figure this out soon, maybe a way to control it, or...something. I can't be a true soldier if I constantly have this fucking dream looming over me every time I lay my head down.

The boys guarded their wagon just fine, and before long, the fighting was over. The screams and echoes of pain through the cliffs had stopped and the heavy feeling of death loomed over the battlefield. Soon enough, the other officers had returned, including the ones in training and Termus had to sit back up to allow for everyone to clamor back into the wagon. It didn't hit him until a few days later that the wagon was far less cluttered than it was before they left the city...


The days turned into weeks as the caravan trudged on, across very narrow cliffsides, up treacherous hills, and even into a few close encounters with some more mountain tribesmen and a few wild animals. A few steep drops in altitude had caused some of the caravan to collide with one another a couple days back. This, of course, caused a two day delay in their journey. But the boys had made it through the roughest of it, and Termus thanked the gods that most of the recruits still had beating hearts.

He had miraculously been able to catch up on some sleep and began feeling his normal self again. Before long, he noticed a small, but incremental decrease in the amounts of hazards as they started their descent out of this horrible death trap. And after what felt like months, they were notified of their final treks down the Ptumerias Mountains and out the other side. It was finally time.

He tried to climb to the back of the wagon to watch the rocks pass him by, hoping to catch a glimpse of what lie below. He had never seen the western side of the continent before but he felt the ashy waste, the grand walls of Nagire, and the distant lightning storms of the Blighted Coast call to him, just begging to be explored. He couldn't contain his excitement, despite knowing what they were marching toward and why he was even here to begin with.

"Hey, Term!" Gnove said suddenly, grabbing his hand and pulling him back from the edge of the wagon. "You've done nothing this entire ride but sit alone, thinking to yourself. I want you to meet my new friends!"

Wow, for once, Gnove was kind of right. It's not that Termus had been one to shy away from meeting people, but lately, he's had so much on his mind that the thought of socializing hadn't really even crossed his thoughts.

"Oh shut up, you twat!" Termus said, cracking a huge smile and sitting down next to his brother. The boys were all sitting in a loose circle on the wagon benches, sprawled out. Polly was perched on the other side of Gnove, eagerly looking up at him while glancing down occasionally to scribble something on a piece of parchment.

"Yo-ho-ho!" A boy howled. "You're that dual-wielding swordsman, right? Gnove wouldn't shut up about you the whole damn time we were here."

"Oh, really?" Termus said, raising his eyebrows and turning to Gnove.

"What?" Gnove said. "I was just telling them how badass you are with a sword."

"Well, Gnove forgot to mention that I'm just good with both my hands. I haven't learned how to use two at once yet." He paused. "What's your name again?"

"I'm Ven, I've been waiting to actually meet you." He held out his hand energetically. Termus leaned in to shake it, noticing it was unusually smooth. He didn't look like a soldier that had been trekking through the mountains for weeks. He was quite well kempt, his hair neatly slicked back, his clothes tidy and unwrinkled. As hard as Termus tried, he couldn't see a speck of dust or dirt on him.

"Thanks," he said uncertainly. "What for, exactly?"

"I've just been really looking forward to getting to know you. Kind of got a bit of a reputation." Ven smiled and winked, giving a slight nod in Termus' direction. "Those hands of yours are all calloused and rough. I like it."

He was still holding delicately to Termus' hand. Was he stroking my fingers? He thought.

"Aha," Termus said as the boys sniggered around him. "Sorry, I'm not into that sort of thing."

Ven smiled even more and licked his lips, raising his eyebrows in the process.

"Oh, wow, uh-huh! I get it," Polly chimed in. "I bet you want to court him, right Ven?"

The boys howled laughing and the whole wagon turned their confused expressions toward them. Ven's hand flopped out Termus' as he leaned back and raised both arms in the air, his face a deep red. "By the God Handi and all that is divine, why'd you have to put it that way?"

As the boys continued laughing, Termus simply smiled and stood up, making his way across the wagon and shuffling himself in next to Ven. He wrapped one arm around his shoulders and lowered his head a bit. "Listen, I'm not gay, but you seem like a nice guy. So, this is what I'm gonna do. You'll be my new brother. Gnove's an asshole, anyway."

Ven cracked a tiny smile as his face returned to normal.

"Anyone know how long it'll take to get to the camp?" Gnove said.

One of the other boys chimed in, speaking in between large, gluttonous chomps of food. "I think—mmm...they said—oh it's sooooo good. Hold on."

"It's just dry meat, Topal. Calm down," Gnove said.

But he still tried talking through his giant gulps. "They said...mmm...about three hours..."

Termus had noticed Topal before but hadn't really payed much attention to observing him. He had a slightly round figure, sort of pudgy. But nowhere near what his appetite suggested. There he was, slouched, his back against the wall of the wagon, destroying beef stick after beef stick. Even now, he had three of them in each hand, and four empty sticks laying on the floor in front of him.

"Finally!" Gnove said. "I can't wait to get off this wagon and stretch my legs. Breathe in that nice Ashen Land air!"

Ven grinned happily. "Yeah, it'll be as fresh as Karangru's lungs are after he puffs on his tobacco stick."

"Hey Topal," a voice said. "Try chewing with your fucking mouth closed. No one wants to see your disgusting food ritual."

"Karangru, what the hell?" Ven blurted out. "Didn't you even hear me?"

The voice spoke again, this time with utter disdain. "Shut the fuck up, Ven. I don't care about your petty comments."

A tall man stood up in the center of the wagon and scanned each of the boys in a circle. His eyes were a dark brown palette, narrowed upon each one of the boys he locked gazes with. Termus felt a wave of fear when it was his turn, but he dare not show it. Not to Karangru. He knew the man had a reputation for being particularly nasty back at the academy. But somehow, he was respected by nearly every other recruit. Maybe it was the way he could almost smell someone's fear. When he spoke, he spoke decisively. And everyone listened.

And speak, he did. "This isn't the time to be cracking jokes and having fun. In case you forget why you're here, take a look right outside." He pointed to the edge of the wagon. "Right out there, you'll see the grey clouds looming over the Ashen Lands, as well as the volcanic rivers of magma. Look further to the west and you can see the silhouette of the great city of Nagire." He paused, facing Termus, and bent down to stare him square in the face. "And what ELSE do you think you'll see for miles on end?"

Termus could smell the tobacco seeping from his mouth, tinging every word he spoke. "Smoke. Not the smoke from the volcano, not the smoke from the ash that hangs in the air. But black smoke. You know what it means? I'll tell ya. Fire. Death. If you think that's something to joke about..." He grabbed Termus' jaw and squeezed it so tightly with his dirty and tattered hands, it felt like he was going to break it clean off. "Then you won't last too fucking long, got it?" Termus reached at his wrist and tried wrenching himself free.

He shoved Termus' jaw out of his grip and scanned the rest of the boys, leaving Termus to massage his now sore jawline. "All of you better watch out," a thin smile creaked out from under his rugged beard. "We're all in for one hell of a storm. And I'm not talking about this war. The seeds of change have already been planted."


The sun was high in the sky when the caravan finally descended down the final mountain. Termus could see the last of the white peaks grow further and further away from his seat at the back of the wagon as the clouds around him greyed and darkened. He couldn't taste the ash flakes in the air yet, but he knew they'd be close. Gnove and Topal had parted a small area in the corner of the wagon to play cards and they had invited him to join them. But he declined, opting to just enjoy the last few minutes of sunshine before everything would be covered in grey.

The whole trip in the covered wagon hadn't allowed him to see much around him, save for the trail they were leaving behind. And even then, it was a pretty standard view. He couldn't wait to get out of this damn thing and be able to get a full view of the scenery, bleak as it was. Despite his most recent Cold Day, he had always been fascinated with anything volcanic: the lava, the magma rivers, the dense and violent eruptions of the volcanos in the ashen lands of Zoah. The burning simplicity of the natural element gave him more zest than he would like to admit.

The wagon came to a slow and clunky stop over the arid cracks in the terrain below as Termus saw some tents and encampments wrap around from behind him. The carts behind them began encircling his wagon as the rest of the convoy arrived in a large circular clearing. He couldn't wait to get off and move around, now that they had finally arrived. And to think, in a week or so the recruits would have to pack up again and head home once the army completed the mission. Might as well make the best of it.

A hand clasped on his shoulder. "Well, well. Looks like we'll be setting up camp together."

It was Ven. Termus couldn't help but laugh. "Sorry, brother, but Gnove and I are sharing a tent."

"But I thought Gnove was an asshole," he said playfully.

"Ahh..." Termus said, brushing the hand off of his shoulder. "I’m sure Karangru would love a tent-mate. Go ask him."

Ven hissed back at him. "How vicious!" He said in a surprisingly flamboyant tone and hopped off the wagon as everyone else was packing up their belongings.

He heard grunting and low muttering of curse words from behind him. Without even looking back, he knew exactly who it was. "Need some help back there?"

"Shit," he heard Gnove say, flustered and fumbling. "No, I got it."

"You know, we've had plenty of time to pack up on the way here instead of waiting for the last minute."

"Oh shut it, Mr. I'm-So-Great-Look-At-Me-Dual-Wield."

Termus smiled to himself and he grabbed his already packed baggage and hoisted it up over the railing, letting it hit the ground below. He hopped over the rail and planted his feet firmly on the grey ground. It felt like landing on rock. He didn't know why he expected the soil to be much softer. Termus looked up to the sky, letting tiny dry ashflakes hit his face. He could already feel the ash coating his lungs from his short time here. He knew he'd have to set up the screen filter on his tent extra tight when they had it pitched.

He canvassed the area. The Ptumerias Mountains were still just barely visible, no longer the same saturated colors they were before, but hazy and grey in the distance. Unfortunately, the volcanos were nowhere nearby, but to the east, he could see the source of the ash. A large silhouette of a singular volcano stood against a surprisingly flat land, jetting out into the sky. He was miles away from it, but with the land as flat as it was, its size was made perfectly apparent. The haze was too thick for him to make out any glowing lava around it, nor could he hear the bubbling of magma rivers nearby. Varying sizes and colors of mushrooms dotted the landscape around him, some reaching almost as tall as he was. He had read that they were practically the only thing able to thrive in an environment like this. He also remembers stories of how in certain areas, the Zoah mushrooms could grow to be twenty or thirty feet tall. That phenomenon only seemed to happen in the south, though. He sighed to himself. Of all the places to set up camp, couldn't we have picked something a bit more...I don't know, exciting? He thought.

THUD! Termus nearly jumped out of his skin as he whirled around and gripped his hand tightly on the hilt of his sword.

"Woah, relax. A bit jumpy today?" Gnove hoisted up his baggage, the string that held the flaps down loosely tied and about to fall apart.

"Hehe, I thought you were Karangru."

A loud female voice bellowed out. "Alright, you worms. Get your stuff packed and go to your designated areas to set up camp. We will convene in two hours. We have no time to waste so don't doddle. We're starting this mission tonight. Everyone will meet at the Councilor's Tent to the southern side of the encampment. Do not be late!"


Setting up the tent was proving to be more tedious than Termus had expected. The ashy air made everything smear and flake like burnt logs under an extinguished fire. There were stakes to be driven, the tarp needed to be perfect to block out the ash carried on the winds and despite being surrounded by packs of tents, Termus never quite felt safe. This flat land was desolate and lent nothing in the way of protection or concealment. The whole encampment felt exposed against the faulty ground.

Once the tent was pitched, the boys had little trouble setting up their own corners of home inside. The wind occasionally howled outside and Termus now relished in the fact that he could breathe cleanly again. Why did he ever think this kind of place would be inhabitable, let alone enjoyable? After the carpet had been set, he finished laying his straw-filled mattress and sat down on it, taking a small breather before unpacking his lantern and folding his clothes neatly at the base of his bed. It comprised mostly of the multiple Legion outfits of the same color and design, but he did manage to stuff a few of his old tunics and slacks in case he had some downtime in between work.

Gnove's side of the bed was unsurprisingly messy, even after just unpacking. He was done far before Termus and was already itching to get out and explore.

"Come on, hurry up. I want to see the Grey Forest." He was saying, anxiously pacing back and forth.

"You do know we have to go to the meeting first before we can do anything, right? It starts in fifteen minutes."

"I know, I know, but I want to get this meeting done with so we can go look around. Maybe even get a peek inside the city walls."

"What do you mean?" Termus said, standing up off the bed and fastening his boot laces.

"Well, the meeting tent is across the way, in the Grey Forest. It's actually really close to the city walls. I'm hoping to get a glimpse of the action."

Gnove was already unfastening the screen flap to the outside as Termus finished lacing his boots. "Hold on a second," Termus said. "I need to grab my pendant."

He had almost forgotten about his prized possession. How could he have been so thoughtless? He liked to wear it whenever possible but he knew the mountains were a perfect place to be ambushed and risk having it stolen, so he left it in his bag during the trip.

"Oh, I didn't realize you weren't wearing it," Gnove said sullenly. "It belonged to your mother, didn't it?"

Termus bent down silently, loosening his bag strap to search for it. "Yeah," he said finally. "It's the only thing I have of my parents to remember them by...The only thing that reminds me that I ever had real parents at all."

In truth, he didn't remember his parents. Every time he thought of them, they would manifest as black figures, one with long flowing hair and the other, a stocky man with a wild short haircut. He didn't know if that was actually them or a mental image he created and latched onto, but either way, there they were, pushing their way into the forefront of Termus' thoughts. Truthfully, he didn't even remember them giving him the pendant.

His hand grasped around the necklace in his bag as he pulled his arm out. A large purple gemstone sat at the center, glistening beautifully against the soft flickers of light from the lanterns. Its edges sharp, it stood pointed at either end, suspended only by a surrounding metal ring. It wasn't necessarily comfortable to wear due to its bulkiness, but the engravings on the ring's surface are why he kept it so close to his heart.

Forge your own path, Termus. -Mom

He just sat there, smiling, feeling the tears welling up inside him for a second. It's been almost a month since he last laid eyes on his mother's words. It was these words that helped him get through his Cold Days, his days of fear, of doubt. They gave him strength when he couldn't find it in himself. They were a rally cry more powerful than war speeches, more motivating than Frank's lessons, always a silent reminder that he had a purpose.

"I will, mother," he whispered to himself as he stood up, threw the necklace on and pushed open the tent.

Gnove was waiting for him when he stepped outside. And so, the boys trudged along south to the meeting. Trees started appearing after a short walk, sporadic as they were, but growing ever thicker. These trees were nothing like the ones in the plains. He noticed the leafless, jagged branches carving out shadows against the forest floor. Again, the fauna was only composed of mushrooms, but they were noticeably more numerous than the flat lands of the campsite. Gnove shuddered a bit from excitement as they finally approached the deeply dense Grey Forest.

Despite its thickness and numerous trees and branches sprawling every which way, the boys pushed in, paying careful attention to always follow due-south. Every tree wrapped into the next, creating one complex network of grey vines. The ash was much thicker here, having already begun coating his cloak in grey dirt, his breathing becoming ever more short and raspy. Luckily, it wasn't long before he could easily see a clearing in the trees, the sprawling branches parting way to what looked like a dirt road. Just on the other side of the road, he could see a few firelights and multiple soldiers gathering around an impressively large tent.

"There it is!" Gnove said, jumping up and down and pointing.

Termus had looked over to laugh at him but he realized that he wasn't pointing toward the tent. He followed his finger up, aiming into the sky. And then he saw it. Just barely visible through the tree branches and hazy air was a monumental wall that casted an ominous shadow over the entire forest. He couldn't even see the top of it, but he could make out the black stone that lined every inch of the behemoth. He instantly felt completely insignificant next to it, a tiny insect crawling his way around a planet-sized being.

He walked forward, mouth agape at the sight, just barely avoiding a low-hanging branch that draped in his way. "Wait, THAT'S Nagire?" he said.

Gnove was giddy with joy, almost squealing a few times as he, too, stood in awe. "Woah! How the hell did humans build this? I got to see the inside of this place!"

There was nothing that could compare to this sight, not even the mountains they just passed through. He had read about the massive size of Nagire's walls but to see them in person made him reconsider everything he read. No mere text could encompass the sheer forceful presence this thing emitted, easily dwarfing even the walls of Central Handiil.

Then he felt a heavy hand clasp his shoulder and start walking him forward.

"Come on, boys, we wouldn't want to be late, would we?" A threatening voice seethed from behind him.

"Oh hey, Karangru," Gnove said nervously, giving a feint laugh.

Without saying another word, Karangru steered the boys the entire way through the woods, across the road and right up to the large table that white-cloaked soldiers were gathering around. And just like that, he was gone, leaving the boys to awkwardly stare at their confused superiors.

It felt like hours before anyone spoke. The councilors all had their white hoods up, heads down in their parchments as usual and the lead officers were pacing around the table, silently inspecting everyone. The silence was almost deafening, every rustle of paper or clearing of throat was nerve-racking.

"HEY GUYS!" A voice squeaked behind him so loud, Termus almost jumped out of his pants.

"Polly!" Gnove said, spinning around. "I was wondering where you were."

Termus felt his heartbeat pumping against his ribcage and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. "Quiet down, you guys, it's starting soon," he said.

But the boys weren't listening and they continued to snickered and whispered behind him.

"Alright recruits," A flowing blonde woman stood at the head of the table. "Today, we will be going over the details of the mission and giving your assignments. The city gates are being rammed as we speak. Our infantry will soon be inside the city and they will provide the distraction that we need to execute our mission. You will be packed into groups of three or four and paired with either a councilor or a head officer to shadow them. They will be showing you the guts of what they do and explaining the mission in full detail and the reasons why we executed it this way."

Why did it have to be her speaking? Termus tried to focus on what she was saying, but he could only stare in awe at the beauty that embodied Commander Maisie. Even in a Legion Officer uniform, her body still bulged through in places, mainly her chest and hips. She knew how to wear that. He began picturing her in a short dress and all sorts of different clothing, even tried thinking of her without anything on. His seventeen-year-old mind was going wild as she droned on, listing off each recruit and their respective tutor. He didn't even know how long she had been talking as he fantasized, but it had to have been a solid ten minutes.

"Frank's orphans are obviously going to be shadowing Frank," she said curtly. Termus snapped to quickly, noticing his body a bit hotter and sweatier than he was before. Wait, Frank was here? With their hoods up, he couldn't tell which councilor he was but he suddenly felt a wave of relief. If anyone was going to show him proper leadership, he wanted no other teacher than Frank.

"Did you hear that, Gnove?" Termus said turning to his side. But he got no reply. In fact, Gnove wasn't even next to him. For that matter, neither was Polly. Where the hell did they go? He thought.

He scanned around the table, looking for Polly's small brown hat or Gnove's disheveled uniform. But they weren't there. The first thought that popped into his head was Karangru. What had that bastard done to them? But as he scanned, he saw the familiar black-haired egomaniac standing toward the front of the table, arms folded and looking aloof.

Did they sneak off? He thought. Would they seriously just up and leave the meeting to go somewhere? He silently turned around, hoping nobody would notice him as he, too, trailed away. This is Gnove, of all people, he thought. Of course, he would. But the question is, where?

He thought of the grey forest, how Gnove talked about wanting to explore it, to look around. He thought about his excitement to walk about the cracked dryland back near the campsites. He couldn't have gone too far. He thought about Gnove's utter glee at the sight of the wall. No... He couldn't be...

Termus picked up his pace, trying to deny his brother's stupidity as he sprinted down the dirt road, the ominous wall looming closer and closer. What the hell was his brother thinking? They're in the middle of a siege. Thud, thud, thud, he heard in front of him. He passed posted guard after posted guard along the road, but they all just saluted and watched him run. I'm lucky I have this cloak on, he thought. But Gnove, where the hell are you?

Two monstrously tall darkwood doors grew closer as he reached the end of the road, coming face to face with the wall. He counted at least ten wagons perched outside, a battering ram in the center. Thud, thud, thud. They boomed as the doors swayed and buckled. The base of the gates had already been beaten in, the ram slowly chipping away at what was left of the resistance.

Hundreds of infantry men in dark green shirts scuttled around every which way, the occasional white cloak parading back and forth, observing. He passed bodies that were scattered about the road, all bleeding and mangled. Some fellow infantry men, some wearing foreign pieces of armor that Termus couldn't recognize. A jagged heavy metal, the chest and pants, layered and scaled, the helmet, a large open-faced mouth with fangs like a serpent. He barely noticed two white cloaks, one average and one small, laying on the side of the road. He turned his head back as he ran. Those were their officer uniforms. They took them off. By why?

He arrived behind the hordes of infantry, frantically scanning the crowd for them. He was running back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of Polly's hat...or something. Please no...

The officers and infantry barely batted an eye as he blended right into the ranks, mimicking the patrolling officers, albeit a lot more hastily. All the wagons began boarding as the final calls were made. The infantry began clambering onto the cart. The officers cried out war rallies and the foot soldiers screamed and pounded the sides of the wagon in a drum-like rhythm.

"Gnove!" He called, but it was drowned out by the deafening noise. He slid his way through the boarding crowd when out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the wagon to the far-left board two odd looking figures. And sure enough, he saw that small, awkward hat that Polly was wearing climb into the covered wagon and disappear.

What the hell are you doing, Gnove? They're heading into a war. These guys are the distraction. Termus frantically shoved people aside to reach the wagon, pausing for a second to peer in. He didn't want to actually board the damn thing.

"Let's go, men!" An officer yelled from behind him. "FOR THE LEGION! FOR HANDIIL!"

The men cheered loudly, flooding Termus' ears with a deafening cry. His yelling was doing nothing. He had no time to think. He needed to board it.

What are you waiting for? He asked himself. Your brother is in there. You need to save him.

His body was frozen in dread. He knew what boarding this wagon meant. Why did his brother have to be so reckless? Finally, after several shoves from the men behind him, he grabbed onto the railing and thoughtlessly hoisted himself up into the wagon.

He immediately began shoving soldiers out of the way, scanning each and every one of them for his brother.

"Gnove!" he kept yelling desperately. "Polly!"

He grabbed a pair of arms and they spun around rapidly, coming face to face with his brother's giant grin and determined eyes staring back at him, before widening as surprise floated across his face. His lips muttered, "Termus?"

Without thinking, he squeezed as hard as he could and thrusted himself backwards toward the end of the wagon, dragging Gnove's resistant body with him. He couldn't hear a word his brother was saying through the noise but he didn't care. He had almost reached the tail end of the wagon, ready to throw Gnove off the edge, back down onto the ground.

But darkness filled the covered carriage as the two metal wagon doors slammed shut with a clang.

KA-CHICK. The doors locked behind them, his brother struggling to get free under his grip. Termus let go of Gnove and immediately began panicking. He ran to where the door was, pounding on it over and over. No! He thought. This can't be happening.

"GET US OUT! WE'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE IN HERE!" He continued bashing as hard as he could, his knuckles searing with blunt pain. "ANYONE! LET US OUT!" Bang. Bang. Bang, he slammed rapidly, using both hands now.

BANG, BANG, BANG. The infantrymen pounded away against the metal doors, chanting songs and bellowing screams. His ears were so drowned out with noise that he couldn't hear the loud smash of the darkwood doors being forced open, a sprawling light peeking through the cracks of the wagon as the carts slowly trotted into the great city of Nagire.