“How is that possible?” Brogan asked, his mustache drooping in surprise.
“You’ve never heard of the Chronians, one of the Cursed Races?” Chrysalism asked.
Brogan shook his head.
“My ancestors were men of science.” Philius began. “They didn’t believe in gods, devils, or magic, but were forced to admit that circumstances existed beyond the realm of the physical. Thus, they set out to categorize and explain magic with science.”
“Now, as any sane magician knows, there are some lines you don’t cross, some doors you don’t open. However, as mentioned, my ancestors were men of science and didn’t believe in superstitious nonsense like that. Thus, they tried more and more risky experiments, until our king decided to determine the future, specifically the date of his death.”
“Unfortunately, his spell summoned one of the strongest demons of Hell. Amused by the audacity of those who denied his existence to his face, the demon decided to grant the king’s wish. Him, and all the citizens of his nation, as well as their descendants were stamped with a countdown to their demise. The number is arbitrary, but all are guaranteed at least 18 years. And, until the countdown ends, we cannot die, not through any means.”
“So you…” Brogan started, then stopped, a sympathetic look on his face.
“That’s right, I got only a little over the 18 years allotted for my life, and now it’s almost over.” He glared at all assembled. “That’s why I can’t understand or appreciate your feelings. I’d do anything for even one more month of life, and here you all are, ready to give up without a fight. Frankly, I’m revolted at your cowardice.”
He sat down at the base of a tree and threw up his hands.
“But, what do I know, after all. Suit yourselves.”
Chrysalism was the first to break the silence.
“Well, what would you have us do then?”
Philius grinned mirthlessly, drawing his sword and driving it into the ground in front of him.
“I say we fight.” He said. “All of us. Let’s go out in style.”
“Fight?” Brogan asked. “But who?”
“The Toscavs, who else?”
“But that would be suicide!” Chrysalism objected heatedly.
“So?” Philius smirked at her.
She blushed, and looked away.
“Lad, I see your point.” Brogan began. “But without any hope of victory, really why bother?”
“Who says we don’t have hope of victory?” Philius grinned broadly. “General, you said that Jortnan was next to be attacked, but it’s not like Toscavy has declared war on them or anything, have they?”
“Well no, not really.”
“Then how do you know they’re next?”
The General sighed. “It’s like this; their first several conquests made sense; Orpheth for their crops, Ireaes for their gold mines, Norynne for their port. Yet, their most recent conquest of Bryke? All they export are theatrics and marble art. What reason would Toscavy possibly have to conquer them?”
“The wood in Eldarth forest?” Philius ventured.
“That’s neutral territory between Bryke, Jortnan, and Alsium.” The General countered. “Besides, if they wanted wood, their own redwood forests are legendary.”
“Okay, so why then?” Philius pressed.
“Clearly so they could reach Jortnan, and its rich iron ore deposits.” The General declared. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. The only way to Jortnan would've been through Bryke, or through Thasilon’s mountains, and they would have suffered immense losses had they tried that route. My men have reported that Toscavy’s even driving the Brykian refugees ahead of them, hoping they’ll be accepted into Jortnan and exhaust their benefactor’s food reserves.”
“Makes sense to me.” Philius agreed. “But that works for us.”
“It does?” Chrysalism asked.
“Of course it does!” He defended. “If we know where they’re going to be…”
“…We can get there first and waylay them!” The General finished. “Guerilla tactics!”
“Hit them where it hurts, then retreat. A death by a thousand cuts!” Philius agreed.
“Brilliant!” The General applauded. Then his face fell. “But even with that, we’d only be a drop in the bucket against their army.”
“That’s why we’re only a distraction.” Philius explained.
“We are?” Chrysalism cut in. “Who on earth for?”
“If the Etrurians were to get a letter from Jortnan that they were under attack without a declaration of war, wouldn’t the Legion be forced to mobilize?” Philius grinned.
“…and then we just delay them long enough for the legion to arrive!” The General summed up with a nod. “It has potential, to be sure. Naturally, there are numerous places we’ll have to fine-tune. Especially the timing of the Legion. It’ll take at best two days for the Legion to arrive, and that’s only after they get the word from our rider.”
“Even if we hold them for just two days, Jortnan can keep them at bay the remaining day or two.” Philius asserted. “We’ll crush the Toscavs between the spears of the Etrurian Legion and the walls of Jortnan! All we have to do is buy time until then.”
“You…you don’t really think it will work, do you?” Chrysalism asked the General in disbelief.
In response, he crossed his arms and looked into the distance, deep in thought. Only his mustache moved, twitching occasionally like some nervous animal. Finally, he spoke.
“We’ll make it work.”
“Nice!” Philius exclaimed. “I knew you had the balls, old man!”
“Oh, Vaeafortanoe help me.” Chrysalism exclaimed.
“If he’s offering, I wouldn’t refuse.” Philius quipped. “All right old man, what’s our first step?”
“Hmph, I thought this was your plan, lad.” He shot back. “But, if you’re asking me, there’s a contact in the area who I think might be able to help us.”
“That’s as good a start as any.” Philius nodded. “I don’t suppose you have any horses? Time’s not exactly on our side.”
“What do you take us bandits for?” The General exclaimed.
“Too much to hope for?” Philius’s face fell.
“Of course we have horses!” He returned. “Some of the fastest in the region, in fact. At the very least, the local sheriffs haven’t caught us yet.”
“Then lead on, old man!” Philius grinned broadly.
And with that, the two men left the clearing.
“And what will you do, little sister?” The giant asked her, breaking the quiet.
“I know I’m a fool for even considering it,” She began “But I’m divided. Half of me says “I came here just to die, what are the affairs of others to me? If I die either way, why not leave in serenity, surrounded by nature, my big sister at my side?””
“And the other half?” She probed.
“The other half reminds me I’ve spent several human’s worth of lives, and accomplished nothing at all. Even if it’s just for the sake of personal gratification, maybe I should try to do something of value, here at the end.”
The giant smiled softly. “And which of the two voices is your heart speaking, little sister?” She asked.
“I think you already know the answer, big sister.”
“Pick any horse you like, lad.” The General offered, looking proudly at the two-score horses wandering contentedly through the glade.
“I appreciate the thought, old man, but I wouldn’t know a stallion from a steer.” Philius admitted. “Any recommendations?”
“You might have luck with this one here.” Brogan patted the rump of a sleek chestnut beast. “Her name’s Pollyanna. Belonged to an old friend of mine, and it always served him well.”
“If it served him so well, why isn’t he here to claim it?” Philius asked suspiciously.
“He always had a bad cough.” Brogan explained. “He could outrun and outfight the law, but not that.”
“Sorry.” Philius apologized. “I’d be happy to ride it.”
“Hey General, where you headed?” A voice called from behind them.
“Blast, I hoped to leave in secret.” Brogan muttered, turning to face the bandit. “No cause for alarm Mauzt, just taking the boy here as far as the next town…”
“We’re gonna go sabotage the invasion of Jortnan.” Philius cut in. “Probably won’t be back, high probability of a glorious last stand and all that.”
“General!” The bandit reproached in a pained voice.
“It’s hardly all that, Mauzt.” Brogan defended. “Just trying to buy time for the Legion to arrive. Hardly worth mentioning.”
“And you weren’t going to invite us?’ The bandit broke into a grin. “Shame on you, General. Finally, some action!” He turned back in the direction of the camp and took off running, yelling as he went. “Hey lads, get your gear and saddled up! We’re off to war again, leave the tents, we ride in twenty!”
“Looks like we got reinforcements.” Philius remarked blandly.
“You’re well loved, General.” Chrysalism remarked, entering the clearing with her head re-attached.
“A lot of idiots, that’s what they all are.” Brogan scoffed, turning his head. “They ought to know there’s no profit to be had in this mad venture.”
But there was no disguising the fierce pride showing in his voice and his rigid mustache.
Twenty minutes were given, but the bandits were ready in seventeen. All the remaining horses that weren’t with foal were loaded with supplies and tied together in a makeshift supply train. Out front, the patch-eyed gruff bandit rode up and saluted the general.
“All present and accounted for, sir!” He bellowed. “Should I give the order to depart?”
“If you would, Smigg.” The General nodded.
“Go on without me, I’ll catch up.” Philius told the General, as the bandit started bellowing orders.
“Bailing so soon, lad?” The General raised one eyebrow.
“Not hardly.” He grinned. “This is finally getting good! I just gotta say my goodbyes first.” He flicked his head in the direction of the Heart of the Forest.
The General nodded his understanding. “Don’t take too long, we won’t wait for you.” He cautioned, flicking his reins and riding off.
When Philius reached the World-Gardener, she was sitting cross-legged on a mossy boulder, gazing far off into the distance with her mysterious liquid gold eyes.
“Oh good, you didn’t go back to your tree.” Philius smirked, reining in.
“The tree and I are one and the same, little brother.” She smiled. “What is it I can do for you?”
“Pacifist that you are, nothing really.” He remarked. “Actually, I just stopped by to apologize for earlier, and to tell you not to die. You’re half the reason we’re fighting, I’d hate to have you croak after I go through the trouble of laying my life on the line.”
The giantess smiled softly. “That’s very kind of you to worry, but this one will not seek the grave while you are away. I promise you that.”
“Well, that’s something anyways.” He scratched his head. “I’m not really good with goodbyes. Should I be saying something else?”
“When did we get to be such friends?” She asked wryly, her golden eyes gleaming. “Tell me little brother, do you not fear death?”
“Are you kidding?” Philius scratched his head again. “Death terrifies me more than anything. I mean, you have a god who went and chose you out, but I got a bloody demon. I don’t even know if anything’s waiting for me on the other side. Not a day goes by I don’t look at my reflection and see myself one day closer to that great uncertainty, all the while knowing there’s not one damn thing I can do to escape my fate. Especially now, with less thank a week to go, it’s all I can do to keep myself together, really.”
“Then why?” She turned to regard him, her deep lakes of gold meeting his pale puddles of blue. “Why fight for something that doesn’t even concern you? Why not just die in peaceful contentment?”
Philius thought about it for a moment. “I guess…because even more than I fear death, I fear having wasted my life. I mean, it’s not like there’s any inherent meaning to being born in this world aside from what we give it. If I just let my life run out without doing anything, my existence really does become a cruel joke. Rather than just lament my fate, I want to justify my short time on this planet by doing something I can die proud of.”
He laughed to himself. “Really, I’m just rambling here. The excitement’s getting to me, I guess.” He flicked his reins. “I gotta go rejoin the others, giant-lady. Remember, no dying while I’m gone!”
And with that, he rode away.
“There’s no meaning to life, aside from what we give it?” The World-Gardener repeated to the empty clearing. Tossing her gaze skyward, she addressed the clouds above. “Vaeafortanoe, what should I have done instead?”
Philius joined up with the rest of the group when they stopped for their midday meal. Brogan took advantage of the brief respite to outline their general plan to the rest of the bandits, although it was at best a rough outline at that point.
“So, this contact you mentioned.” Philius broke in. “Who is he?”
“Calling him a disreputable man would be putting it generously.” The scruffy-bearded redhead explained. “He’s the one we sell our spoils to, usually exchanging them for goods and equipment. He’s some rich merchant prince or other, who gets his kicks by funding civil wars and other insurrections, backing both sides and gambling on the winners.”
“And why are we seeking out this…man?” Chrysalism asked, looking very much like she would rather call him something else.
“I have more than a little gold saved up.” The General explained. “It would be worth all our while to equip ourselves before we make war. Besides,” he continued, “Last I heard he was doing business in Bryke, so he might have news for us.”
“We are a little under-equipped.” Philius admitted, glancing at their shabby armaments.ns22.214.171.124da2